On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Use the language to be good at it

Not too long ago, I attended a wedding where he was the
master of ceremony. The listeners, comprising family members and friends, who
attended the occasion were obviously very proud of him.

He has been the most successful person in his small village where most of the
residents are labourers, hawkers and factory workers.

The young man was quite impressive in his public speaking until he attempted to
speak in English. I understood that he had always scored A's in his English
paper in public examinations but his oral expression of the language did not
reflect the results he achieved.

He could not speak a sentence in English correctly. In short, it was an
embarrassment, although most of the Hokkien-speaking listeners were not aware
of it.

I cringed at the thought that this upstart might one day represent Malaysia
at medical conferences overseas and present working papers.

Unless he seriously makes an effort to improve himself in the language, he
would be speaking broken English forever.

The fact is that students, irrespective of race, would never be able to fare
well in English unless they converse in the language with one another or within
the family.

This medical student comes from a home where no English is spoken and Wah Loi
Toi, the Chinese channel in Astro, is the family's only window to the world –
which unfortunately means China,
Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In contrast, the pupils at some Chinese schools, such as Puay Chai primary
school and Catholic High School in Petaling Jaya, speak to one other in English
outside their classes because English is widely used at home.

Moreover, English is taught in Year One in many Klang
Valley schools while most Chinese
schools, especially those in new villages, begin this subject in Year Three.
So, it is not unreasonable to say that learning English has been a struggle,
too, for Chinese school students as it has been for those from national schools.

But it cannot be denied that Chinese school students have always excelled in
Mathematics and Science because of the strong foundation at primary level. Most
parents and teachers attribute this to the use of the Chinese language because
the drilling, in remembering the multiples and formulas, is done in a
''sing-song'' manner.

Parents with children in Chinese schools understand the need to improve the
standard of English but they are concerned as to whether using English would
affect the successful method of teaching these two subjects.

In 2000, Chinese primary schools scored 91.2% passes in the Year Six
examination against 75.2% in national schools and 73.9% in Tamil schools. For
Science, it was 83.8% against 77.5% in national schools and 73.8% in Tamil
schools. In the case of English, it was 63.3% in Chinese schools, 56.7% in
national schools and 45.6% in Tamil schools, reflecting the need to improve the
language in all three systems.

The government has correctly decided that a political solution be sought to
deal with the issue. It is best that Barisan Nasional leaders from the MCA,
Gerakan, Sarawak United People's Party and the Sabah Progressive Party sit down
with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Datuk Seri
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to decide on the best solution.

The vernacular newspapers should not attempt to give any emotional twist to the
issue. We should be clear that the government's intention is simple – to
improve the proficiency of English in schools – and Malaysians fully support
the idea.

The question now is how the educators should carry out this plan to improve
English in schools without affecting a teaching method that is widely acclaimed
to be successful in Chinese primary schools.

Unlike leaders of the Dong Jiao Jong education movement, who feared the use of
English would jeopardise the character of Chinese primary schools, most parents
who send their children to Chinese schools simply want their kids to perform
well without letting politics get in the way.

They realise that even at international level, it is acknowledged that Chinese
students out-perform American and British students when it comes to Science and

The demand for places at Chinese primary schools has increased simply because many
parents, especially the English-educated ones, understand the need for their
children to be proficient in Chinese in view of the expanding China
and Taiwan

The economic pull is certainly stronger than the racial factor. Likewise, our
parents sent many of us to English schools previously because the
English-educated had better employment opportunities compared to those from
other mediums.

Well-to-do Chinese families sent their children to study in the United
Kingdom when the exchange rate was more
reasonable because degrees from Taiwan
universities were not recognised here. They were regarded as second-class
graduates because Taiwan
was then an economic backwater.

Should the Education Ministry decide finally that English must be used in the
teaching of Mathematics and Science in Chinese primary schools, then every
effort should be made to ensure its success.

The Education Ministry must go ahead with the move to emphasise the use of
English in schools. For a start, there must be an increase in English

Like Bahasa Malaysia,
English should be a compulsory subject to pass in public examinations. Unless
it is required, students will never put their heart and soul into studying the
language, no matter how much we tell them about the global importance of