November 9, 2008
by Royal Professor Ungku A. Aziz*
MALAYSIAN nation building is founded on the realisation of national unity. Education must be one of the primary influences in the achievement of this objective. At the core of this policy is the teaching and learning of language.
Malay is the only vehicle which can ensure the achievement of genuine national unity. Simultaneously, English must be learnt in order to reap the full benefits of globalisation.
The advantages of the bilingual approach to language learning and teaching are mainly derived from mental interaction in an environment where the two languages are learnt at the same time.
This will stimulate the minds of children and adults who will be able to reinforce their thinking skills as well as their memory. Fluency in Malay, competency in English and integrative bilingualism are the key requisites for national unity.
While it is indisputable that competency in English is essential for economic and commercial development, there is an equal need for wide acceptance of the one language, Malay, that can genuinely bond together all Malaysian citizens, irrespective of their rural or urban location, race or religious background.
Two languages, Malay and English, should be taught and learnt throughout the 11 years of education and, where possible, from the first tertiary year. Language, for the formation of national unity, has to be taken seriously and not given casual lip service. It should be taught for at least two periods a week.
A thorough grounding in grammar of both languages is as important as the development of an ever-expanding vocabulary and phraseology according to common usage.
Very early on, every student should be taught correct chirography so that from the start, students will write letters that have uniform shapes. Malaysian students seem to write alphabetical letters in amorphous shapes that are often unintelligible.
Malaysian educators and political leaders need to realise that Malay and English each have different syntaxes, grammar and historical backgrounds. Therefore, each needs to be learnt according to their respective languages.
The Malay language is founded on the principles of affixation (imbuhan). One hundred and forty years ago, William Marsden (author of A Dictionary of the Malayan Language) called them particles. There are prefixes (pe, mer, ber, etc), suffixes (kan, i, etc) and infixes (em, er, etc). There are special words for the functions of place, tense, singularity and plurality.
The significance of affixation can be easily understood. A count of items in Kamus Imbuhan Bahasa Melayu (Fajar Bakti 2005) shows that 95 per cent of the words were associated with an affix. Out of a total of 2,323 base words consisting of nouns and verbs, there were 11,405 instances of affixation.
Most Malay words consist of a pair of consonants and vowels whose pronunciation are commonly understood. But this is not the time to discuss the finer points of Malay grammar. Incidentally, both languages have pedigrees that stretch back at least a thousand years and include poetry that can be easily understood by children and adults.
Malay has a history of over a thousand years during which time it discovered its own grammar, poetry and phraseology. Malay has drawn extensively on cognate sources that have assimilated inputs from other languages, including Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Portuguese and Dutch.
English grammar is the result of English history as it was formed during the past millennium.There is a reasonable degree of unanimity as to the correct usage of Malay and English among the teaching profession and the academics.
Two further points need clarification. Both languages will have to be learnt up to the point where they can be equally understood by the beginning of the secondary system. The respective shares of other subjects in the timetable will have to be appropriately reallocated.
All schoolchildren should be given the opportunity of learning other languages in Malaysia. A distinction needs to be made between learning any language and using a language as the main medium of instruction via Malay and English.
Insufficient attention has been given to the notion that language learning, and indeed the accumulation of knowledge, is closely tied to the growing mental capacity of children. Primary children can be taught simple nouns and verbs of one or two syllables. As they mature, they can learn more complex ideas associated with appropriate nouns and verbs.
They should proceed from concrete words to abstract words and from simple phrases or sentences to more complex or sophisticated expressions.
The Malaysian education system should seriously reconsider its preference for the inductive approach as compared to the deductive approach in language teaching and learning in Malaysia. This is more rational and likely to be more effective in the total learning systems.
In conclusion, language learning for national unity involves three stages : thinking, learning and using.
Some readers may raise the usual pessimistic objections and try to bury this proposal by claiming that the three-way approach is too idealistic and not sufficiently pragmatic. Readers should study the proposals in detail and not get lost in the forest by giving too much attention to the twigs and leaves rather than the roots.
One of the most dangerous death traps for this proposal is the, “yes but…” or, “it will take too much time…”. Its collaborator is a form of academic logomachy (word-making) which can be utterly unconstructive.
The first step is to convince the political and professional elites of its feasibility, and then students, teachers and parents will follow. Otherwise, Malaysian pedagogy will fall into a tunnel from which there will be no escape. It could be known as “Pedagogy in Wonderland”. (With apologies to Alice and Lewis Carroll.)
The lack of space prevents me from discussing a variety of collateral topics such as learning in the mother tongue, whatever that may be.
Moral, faith and religious education as well as education for entrepreneurship should be considered. Opportunities for physical activity should be provided to students of all ages and gender in the spirit of having a healthy mind in a healthy body.
The sensitive issue of trilateral racial polarisation should be bravely and calmly faced. Malaysian cultural and educational trends tend to be centrifugal (moving outwards from the centre) rather than centripetal (spiralling inwards). National unity is constantly threatened by the rise of divisive and dysfunctional pressures.
The strengthening of national unity would be one of the best benefits from the adoption of the three-way approach.
Besides the widening and strengthening of vocabularies, there should be serious efforts to interest all students, parents and, of course, teachers in expanding their cultural horizons by reading an ever widening range of works in the various fields of knowledge, science and literature in both languages, including translations from a variety of languages. Reading should be enjoyed for its own sake as well as for passing examinations.
The relative importance of the respective subjects can be discussed when this main thesis is broadly accepted. There is neither the time nor the space to decide now whether History, as taught in schools, should be learnt as a compulsory subject rather than Biology or Geography.
The prime objective is to achieve competency in the two languages while other choices should be subject to decisions that are based on rational, objective and empirical ideas.
The fundamental role of teachers should be respected. In fact, the teaching profession should be recognised as being on par with the civil service so that parents and political leaders can give it due respect.
Malaysia’s survival needs a clear, rational response to the resolution of teaching and learning English and Malay within a bilingual context. This proposal offers a unique opportunity for all Malaysian citizens to accept the one change that could satisfy practically everybody.
* Ungku Aziz is a Royal Professor of Economics and former Vice Chancellor, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia