UPDATED: Malaysia Reverts to Teaching Math and Science in Native Language

By Sean Cavanagh — July 13, 2009 2 min read
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The United States is by no means the only country where battles erupt over how rigidly schools should adhere to the teaching of native languages in the classroom. In Malaysia, the government has decided that from now on, math and science classes will be taught in Malay—with English getting pushed out the classroom door.

The change apparently represents one of a number of reversals of a language policy in Malaysia, a former British Colony. After the nation’s independence in 1957, Malaysian officials originally moved to have math, science, and other courses taught in Malay, according to this story in the Associated Press. But in 2003, the government changed course, and decided to teach math and science in English. One reason they did so back then: They were worried about their students keeping up with students from a nearby academic power, Singapore. (Most other subjects in Malaysia continued to be taught in Malay, according to the article.) In Singapore, by the way, the official language is Malay, though English is “the key language of communication,” and many residents speak and write a second language—typically Mandarin, Tamil or Malay, according to the government.

The new decision to revert to Malay came about after protests from linguists and residents, including those in rural parts of the country, where the use of English is less common. They argued that students’ scores on national tests were suffering because of their lack of familiarity with English. According to the story, ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia also wanted to have math and science taught in their native tongues.

This is one of the first instances I’ve seen in which language policy in math and science is being treated separately from studies in other subjects. It’s probably a reflection of how much attention those subjects are now receiving in the international sphere, and how nations are struggling to balance their desire to gird students for the global job market against issues of national pride and the desire to preserve and promote the use of a native language.

UPDATE: Education officials in nearby Indonesia say they aren’t inclined to follow suit and stop using English as the language of instruction in math and science classes. “No way we will drop it,” one of them is quoted as telling the Jakarta Globe. A major difference between the two countries appears to be that while Indonesia has moved since 2006 to have more students take classes in English, only a minority do so in math and science, according to the story. So it appears that the use of English in that country will continue to grow.

The official language in Indonesia, you ask? Bahasa Indonesia (a modified form of Malay), with English, Dutch, and local dialects, including Javanese, also spoken.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.