Sunday June 24, 2012
Why stop at two?
CONTRADICTHEORY By DZOF AZMI
The more languages our students speak, the better their chances of being productive and successful.
I RECENTLY attended a dialogue session organised by the Education Ministry. This was one of several town hall sessions where the public was invited to ask questions or make comments about the future of education in Malaysia.
One topic that frequently came up was the language of instruction for Science and Maths. This controversial policy looked as if it had been put to rest last November when Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the subjects will now revert to being taught in Bahasa Malaysia. However, that has not stopped people from debating this issue.
Most of the points raised at the dialogue were arguments I had heard before, eg, both subjects should be taught in Malay because otherwise, it will discourage some students from taking the subjects. Or, they should be taught in English because that’s the language the world uses when discussing the subjects.
However, the most eloquent response was made by National Laureate (Sasterawan Negara) Prof Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh. I wish I had recorded what he said, so that I can present his comments verbatim, but I will make do with my notes.
Muhammad started by noting that many of those who had spoken earlier had “minta izin untuk bercakap dalam Bahasa Inggeris” (asked for permission to speak in English), and that this showed that although most understood they should speak Malay at a formal function, they were clearly not comfortable doing so.
He then said the growing dominance of English was at the expense of other minor languages, many of which had “died” through lack of use. Although Malay does not seem to be at risk, it is being marginalised in Malaysia.
He quoted a piece of research which showed that Bahasa Melayu was one of the top languages in terms of usage as bahasa pasar (informal or colloquial language). He then concluded that the government has not yet succeeded in its policy to make Malay the country’s official language.
What’s worse than that is, I think, we may end up having Malaysians who are incapable of using the full breadth and depth of any single language.
When politicians talk of a unified Malaysia, they invariably highlight the national language as one of its pillars.
In 1995, when then-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad espoused a “Bangsa Malaysia”, he said he was talking about “people being able to identify themselves with the country, speak Bahasa Malaysia and accept the Constitution”.
I think most Malaysians would consider the national language to be important (and not just so we can talk amongst ourselves when abroad). Is it enough if we mainly use the language in an informal way? Isn’t a language that is used daily in a natural and malleable form preferable to a formal, “dead” one (like Latin)?
It seems that mastery of language for day-to-day living is different from language for work or study. In other words, it is possible to speak a language fluently enough to go to the market but not be able to use it to make a business presentation. The opposite may also be true.
For example, I have no idea what the names are of many Malaysian vegetables and spices in English, and when shopping in a Parisian bazaar, my basic French sounds very formal and marks me as a foreigner.
On the other hand, if we accept the statistic that more than 91% of companies in Malaysia use English as a first language, why should we find it surprising that so many more Malaysians are more comfortable discussing business in English instead of Malay?
We may proclaim we are bilingual when, in fact, we predominantly use a single language within one context, and then switch to another language in another.
This has created a divide in Malaysia.
For example, Malaysian television channels (especially on satellite TV) are designed to cater to a single, narrow demographic. It’s interesting to note that the channels are exclusively monolingual, and there is a strong correlation between language and the perceived viewers’ race, income level and education.
A friend suggested the real situation may be even worse than that – there are Malaysians who are not fluent in any single language, and they get by with a smattering of several languages.
When one language is used informally at home, but another is used formally in school, the child may be unable to present complex ideas in his mother tongue. He may also not be comfortable discussing more complex subjects in a casual conversation. One example of this from the United States: a four-year-old who was exposed to English and Spanish did not know the words “red” or “roja” when asked to name that colour.
Correlation should not imply cause-and-effect, but we must at least consider that the ghettoisation of language mirrors the stratification of society.
This is why I think it is imperative that the government comes out with a policy that clearly states we want all Malaysians to be bi- or tri-lingual, and for a goal, all Malaysians should be comfortable “native” speakers of both English and Bahasa Malaysia by the time they are 12 years old.
That way, whatever language students learn their subjects in eventually, they will have every chance at success. And as they become productive and contributing citizens, every Malaysian will then be able to stand up and debate any pressing issue without the need to ask permission to speak in a particular language.
■ Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.