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Hishammuddin wrong – PMR results for secondary school students not relevant to controversy over use of English to teach mathematics and science from Std. One in primary school


Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang  

Parliament, Thursday): Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein is wrong when he said that this year’s Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) examination results, which sees an overall improvement, is proof misgivings about the policy on the use of English in the teaching of  science and mathematics was unfounded.

Hishammuddin said: “A lot of allegations and findings were made without empirical facts and figures. This is the first group that has sat for exams and fears they would not perform depended very much on these results. I see that most of the fears are unfounded.”


He then took a quantum leap to link the favourable PMR results with the controversy over the use of English to teach mathematics and science in Std. One in the primary schools, claiming that the controversy is now settled and  that the problem is over “the question of implementation and not policy”.


He said  the formula on the number of periods for the pioneer batch of Chinese primary school students entering Std. Four with regard to the teaching of the two subjects in English is being worked out with MCA and Gerakan.


Hishammuddin is wrong and most unprofessional  in his reaction as the PMR results cannot be used to vindicate  the use of English to teach mathematics and science from Std. One in primary schools as the PMR results concerns secondary school students and  is only relevant about the use of English to teach mathematics and science from Form One in the Secondary Schools.


Critics of the use of English to teach mathematics and science, whether from Opposition parties or  educational organizations like Dong Jiao Zhong,  Malay and Tamil education bodies had focused on the problem faced by Std. One primary school  pupils in the use of English to teach mathematics and science and not on the Form One secondary school students, as very different educational principles are involved.

There is very strong evidence from many studies throughout the world that science and mathematics are most effectively learned in the child's mother tongue or home  language at the primary school.


Internationally-acknowledged educationists and researchers agreed  that in the early years of  primary education, mother-tongue or home language education  is imperative to achieve a higher level of mental maturity, which can then be transferred into a second-language education.


Studies by J. Cummins, M. Swain, M. Saville-Troike and   K. Anstrom show that a unitary cognitive academic proficiency (i.e. “thinking skills”) underlies all language performance, and may be expressed through either the first language (L1) or the second language (L2).  The “thinking skills” are developed primarily through the L1 in the early years, and may then be transferred to and expressed in an L2 later on.  If a learner’s L1 remains underdeveloped, then so does that learner’s “thinking skills”.  Thus, when that learner attempts to acquire an L2 and pursue studies through  the medium of an L2, that learner will bring  lower “thinking skills” to the task and be disadvantaged. 


These studies show that if a learner uses and develops his or her L1 for several years, and then moves into an L2 educational system at a later stage, that learner will invariably perform better than a learner who entered the L2 education system from the very beginning. 


In one “classic study” on immigrant Finnish children in Sweden,  the prevailing belief that the younger the children were when they begin school in their new language, the better they would do in terms of second language acquisition and overall academic achievement was proved wrong. The study found that the children who adapted and performed the best were those who began education through their L2 between the ages of 10-12 years. 


Another study compared the performance of two groups of Mexican children in the 6th grade in US schools on English language reading comprehension tests.  The one group had received two years of Spanish language education in Mexico followed by four years of English language education in the USA. The other group had received no Spanish language education in Mexico, and six years of English language education in the USA.  Contrary to popular expectations, the children with two years of L1 education outperformed the others in English, even though they had received fewer years of English language education. 


After reviewing similar research, Cummins and Swain (1986) reach the conclusion that an initial period of L1 education is imperative to achieve a higher level of mental maturity, which can then be transferred into L2 education. 


These studies are  vindicated by the long list of Nobel Science Laureates and distinguished mathematicians and scientists who received their initial groundings in mathematics and science in their non-English first mother-tongue languages, whether Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (Nobel Physics 1930 - India), Abdul Kalam (Father of Missile Technology, India), Chen Ning Yang and  Tsung Dao Lee (Nobel Physics 1957 - Chinese), Loo-Keng Hua (Father of Modern Mathematics, China),    Albert Einstein (Nobel Physics 1921 - German) or Marie Curie (Nobel Physics 1903 – French).

This is also why most non-English speaking countries like Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Germany conduct their teaching-learning processes of science and mathematics in their respective National Language at the primary level in their school system.


Three years ago, one Cabinet Minister warned that the teaching of science and mathematics in English from Std. One will pose the following serious problems:

  • Most students (except for the bright ones and those from well-to-do urban upper middle class) will not learn mathematics and science effectively because English does not provide the continuity of learning from mother tongue in the home environment. Those affected will be children of lower-middle class of various races from the rural areas, new villages, estates and urban poor areas.

  • A majority of our next generations will not be able to use their community language/mother tongue to perform arithmetic operations, logical reasoning or understand and relate to their living environment - both nature and man-created, including common appliances and objects. In other words, they will not be able to communicate effectively in a complete way in their own mother tongue. Neither will they learn English effectively.


These problems have not been resolved by the PMR examination results which have nothing to do with the use of English to teach mathematics and science from Std. One and the acquisition of “thinking skills” of the young generation of Malaysians.


Hishammuddin should be prepared to re-open dialogue with all concerned political, educational and  civil society groups for a reconsideration on the continued use of English to teach science and mathematics from Std. One as to whether this is in the best educational interest of the future generation of Malaysians – and not allow political interests to sacrifice the educational interests of the nation.



*  Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman

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