Pleading for PPSMI

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Global ... English is the most widely-used language around the world. Photo by EPA
In the last several months, many parents have written to the local newspapers pleading for the government not to do away completely with the policy known commonly as PPSMI (Pengajaran Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris or Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English).

Having been a Science and Mathematics teacher and teacher trainer for 32 years and also having been deeply involved in the PPSMI programme for several years, I sympathise with their pleas.
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At the heart of the issue is the attempt to elevate the level of proficiency in English amongst the younger generation of Malaysians.
PPSMI was introduced in Malaysian public schools in 2002 beginning with Std 1 (in primary schools) and Forms 1 and 6 (in secondary schools). However, in 2008, after six years, the government decided to do away with the programme, reverting to Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics.
Several important factors in favour of the PPSMI policy need to be reconsidered.

Firstly, the most popular argument of those against the PPSMI policy is that if proficiency in English is the main concern, why target Science and Mathematics. Instead, they call for an increase in the time allocation for the English subject in the class timetables.
Even without such an increase, a child who finishes 11 years of school (Std 1 to Form 5), would have had about 1,300 hours of English-language lessons. Yet, a large proportion of students, especially in rural areas, are still unable to string even a simple sentence in English free of errors in grammar or syntax after all those hours of learning English.
I do not believe that increasing the hours of English-language lessons in the classroom will be of much help. If 1,300 hours of English-time could not achieve the desired learning outcomes, I doubt that even 2,000 hours will produce any significant improvement.
It would only present additional logistic problems for the schools and overwork the English-language teachers.

Secondly, the process of language learning needs to be properly understood. It is very different from the process of learning facts (as in subjects such as History and Geography) or concepts (as in Science and Mathematics).

A lot of drill and practice can enhance the learning of these subjects but in language learning, drill and practice are only helpful when children are already proficient in the language.

Instead, the process of immersion is far more suited for acquiring basic proficiency in a language. Linguists are convinced that language is more "caught than taught". It is only through extensive reading and listening (or being immersed in a language) that pupils catch a language.

The third factor that begs consideration is the fact that any language needs to be learnt in an environment or context that promotes its use; it would be difficult to learn a language in isolation. It is clear that for most rural children that the environment for using English does not exist; once outside the classroom, English is never used.

However if a school subject (be it History, Geography, Mathematics or Science) is taught in English a context is created for the pupils to have a meaningful interaction with not only the subject matter but also the language. To some extent a school subject studied in English provides the pupils with some immersion and hence opportunities for catching the language.

When the PPSMI policy was implemented in 2002, the then Prime Minister was pragmatic and prudent in choosing Science and Mathematics as the subjects to be studied in English. After all with the Internet age and the global trend towards technology, English is the lingua franca of the day.

The fourth point to consider is the innate capacity for language learning in human beings.  Linguists and child psychologists tell us that all human babies are born with the capacity for language learning. 
They call it the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This device begins to operate at around two years of age when children start thinking and speaking in a human language. Between the ages of two and seven, the device is most pliant and active, and children literally “mop up” whatever language they are exposed to.
At this stage if children are constantly exposed to even two or more languages, they will still be able to accommodate those languages. Most of those who are proficient in multiple languages were exposed to those languages from an early age.

As we get older, the device (LAD) becomes less and less active and by the time we reach adulthood it tapers off to a relatively low level. This explains why children learn a new language a lot faster than adults.
Children in the primary classes should have minimal difficulty in learning Science and Mathematics in a new language, be it English, Spanish, Japanese or any other foreign language.

They have the capacity to pick up a new language fast – including the grammar, syntax and its nuances, provided the teachers are proficient in the language. The large number of Malay and Indian pupils in the Chinese vernacular schools who speak and express themselves in Mandarin with the same proficiency as their Chinese classmates only proves this point.

To say that pupils are not doing well in Science and Mathematics because of their weakness in English, as opponents of PPSMI have maintained, is a rather superficial inference; even when taught in Bahasa Malaysia they could still be weak in those subjects.

The real problem for the shortcomings of the PPSMI policy, I believe, lies with the teachers. This should have been anticipated at the very beginning of the implementation of the policy.

The success or failure of the policy depended very much on the capability of the teachers to implement it in the classroom. At the time of implementation, a large majority of the Science and Mathematics teachers in the country lacked proficiency in the English Language.

As discussed earlier, the nature of language learning is such that all the ETeMS (English for the Teaching of Mathematics and Science) programmes for Science and Mathematics teachers would have had little effect in raising their level of proficiency in English.

There was always the temptation to resort to Bahasa Malaysia and that is what many teachers were doing. But to fault the teachers for any shortcomings in the PPSMI policy is unfair. To have expected them to become proficient in English after having undergone the ETeMS courses is being naive.

The main reason for any cited failure of the PPSMI policy is its hasty implementation. To have expected more than 70,000 teachers in nearly 10,000 schools nationwide to be ready to teach in English after undergoing crash courses in the language is foolishness.

However, if the implementation of the PPSMI policy was done in a systematic manner over a longer period of time, success and acceptance of the policy could have been ensured. The following are some steps that should have been taken:

1. Implement the policy in stages. Begin with selected schools (not more than five per cent of the total number of schools) throughout the country.
2. Ensure that the teachers involved are already proficient in English. If necessary, transfer such teachers in the locality to the participating schools.
3. Carry out ongoing in-service English Language courses for all Science and Mathematics teachers in stages.
4. Ensure that all teacher trainees for Mathematics and Science in the training institutes are adequately equipped in English Language proficiency.
5. Ensure that all new recruits in the teacher training institutes for Science and Mathematics are already reasonably proficient in English so that by the time they graduate they would be ready to teach in English.
6. Allow at least six years (one cycle) and up to 12 years for the full implementation of the policy.

Finally, we must remember that it took a whole generation (about 35 years) to bring about the plunge in English Language standards in the country. It will probably take at least another generation to elevate the standards again to a desirable level. To expect significant results only after six years of implementation is being unrealistic and short-sighted.

Looking at global trends and the importance of the English Language in the global arena, the government will do well to re-implement the PPSMI policy for the benefit of the younger generation.

 Should the Malaysian government decide to consider reviving the policy, it needs to be more careful with its implementation. Some of the steps mentioned above must be borne in mind. 

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