UNGKU A. AZIZ: Bilingual Approach to Learning

source: Nstonline

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

17 thoughts on “UNGKU A. AZIZ: Bilingual Approach to Learning

  1. Sorry Din, slightly off topic…

    Talking about the economy, since the credit crunch every other reserve bank & central bank chairmen & govenors have spoken about their respective economies, but ours not a wisper from her. Its as if our economy is on auto pilot, just like the government. Based on past experience I think our very own recession is one year lag. Just watch!

    I do not know what happens in the inner chambers of policy making. But I do know that central bank governors do not make comments in public since what they say is market sensitive. Governor Ismail Mohamed Ali and his successor, Governor Aziz Taha, were known to speak to the press only when they announce the release of the Bank’s Annual Report and the Quarterly Economic Bulletin.

    Governor Zeti adopts the same approach and probably says her piece behind closed doors. After all, as Financial Advisor and Banker to the Government, she has to act in a professional manner. Remember, advice can be given, but is not necessarily accepted. The present government, especially the Minister of Finance No. 2, Nor Mohamed Yakcop, is arrogant and impervious to advice.

    I am told by some friends that Minister Nor Mohamed and Governor Zeti do not see eye to eye on economic and financial policies.—Din Merican

  2. Bloggers,

    This Ungku Aziz article should be read, discussed and commented upon by all Malaysians who want to see educational reform in our country.

    Our most outstanding Malaysian Vice Chancellor of MU and my Professor of Economics makes a strong case that we should return to bilingual approach and basics of “thinking, learning and using”. His thoughts on the subject make a lot of sense to me. We must have the courage to move away from zenophobic Malay nationalism and innovate if we are going to compete globally. I need not add that there is high degree of correlation between education and economic growth. Let us return to the era of the thinking individual.

    Society needs individuals imbued with high moral values and courage who can think rationallly and act with vigour and conviction. Otherwise, we deserve to rot and lag behind nations in our region and the rest of the world.

    Thank you, Pak Ungku, for showing me during my undergraduate days in the 1960s what was possible if I led a life of learning and critical reflection. I remember you urging my classmates and I to think outside the box, and to accept the dictates of reason and intellectual discourse. I owe you a intellectual debt that can never be repaid. It has made all the difference to my life.

    You may wish to know, if you happen to read these comments, that I read as much as possible and that I am still grappling with Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”. The book is really tough going but I am not letting up. I have been able to proceed to Chapter 2 (The Human Intellect…).—-Din Merican

  3. My Bahasa was so bad. Sitting for an hour just to hear the guy give lectures on economic terminology in bahasa made Japanese water torture feel like a walk in he park!
    Mr. Bean, you are like Nehru, lah. Very British. Learn their mother tongue. Two languages are better than one. —Din Merican.

  4. Din,

    I know for a fact that she did not agree to the acquisition of the Indonesian bank & knowing Temasek, there must be something to it. Not sure whether she’s for or against the EPF money injecting into ValueCap. Any event, I still think she should say something not like the way she handles the interest rates during spiralling inflation.

    Think if she has differences with her boss, she should on principle just resign.
    eeyaw, I have heard from some sources that she did tender her resignation to the Prime Minister but it was not accepted. It is very serious when an award winning Central Bank governor like Governor Zeti resigns. The only Governor to have resigned in Malaysian central bank (born 1959) is Governor Aziz Taha. —Din Merican

  5. Prof Ungku Aziz’s article is very positive, very well-written and well thought-out. More importantly, it is written in an easy-to-read-and-understand fashion. It should in fact be made a required reading for all teachers, educators and students.
    Even more so, it must also be read by all politicians but alas, we know only too well how the ruling government ministers and their ilk will respond.

  6. I do agree with Prof Ungku Aziz’s views in this article. I hope the new governing bodies in the PKR states together with their MPs in Parliament will take the suggestions and advise in this article seriously, thereafter, consider find a way to apply it for the purpose of enhancing the quality of teaching and learning of both languages in our schools, colleges and universities.

    Pursuant to Prof’s comment that “… Malaysian students seem to write alphabetical letters in amorphous shapes that are often unintelligible.”,
    I’d like to add, I noticed that language teachers no longer teach cursive writing at primary school or secondary school since as far back as the 90’s. It’s a pity that such handwriting skill is no longer taught. I am of the opinion that cursive writing must be taught to school children. I teach my children this technic of hand writing however, it will be more effective if teachers themself are involved.

    As an interested party in this languages and education issues, I hope change for the betterment of our schools, the teachers and the subjects taught will be the first priority in our govenment’s agenda, both state and federal.

  7. When it was first announced several years ago that Science and Mathematics subjects were to be taught in English I, and I am sure many others, assumed that this would be a long overdue first step in the re-introduction of full English use in our education system like in pre,Merdeka days.

    Alas, instead of proceeding with what most agree is the obvious decision we seem to be beating about the bush on perhaps the most important single issue in our pursuit of excellence in education. The way things are going we shall still be talking (and talking) twenty years from now.

    In fact our students should have to learn not two but at least three languages. We have the resources and this will be the best investment for our future generations.

    PR ought to make this part of its Manifesto.

  8. There are advantages no doubt in the use of English. But the Continental Chinese and Japanese get along OK without English, so what’s the real problem?

    They’ve never done many things right. This won’t be one of them.

    Look at the EPF deduction! The mamak Mohamed Noh should have put forward what cuts the ministers should sacrifice instead of running to workers every time there’s a problem.The BN Ministers and Assistants probably make 30% of the the total GDP, inclusive of non taxeable income!

    Cut BN Ministers salaries, show sacrifice don’t “froth” at the mouth 25 hours a day!!! 😦

  9. “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”

    I do not want to go near the justification of Malay as the language to achieve national unity however I do question the role of any language as a unifying factor. If that is true, we won’t be here today, still grappling with issues of unity, even though we have a national language !

    What unites or divides a people is their culture, religion and political persuasion! At a national level, for example, the Chinese, the Indians and the Irish share a common language but their peoples are as parochially separated as ever. It can be further argued that if language is a unifying factor, Taiwan will not exist, the Indian subcontinent will not be separated into India and Pakistan even both peoples spoke Urdu and the Irish would not be killing each other since both the north and south spoke English !

    In the Malaysian context, the same argument applies to the Malays,Chinese and Indians as each remained parochially separated within its individual ethnicity ! Considering our social fabric, if we are really serious about achieving national unity, we need to create a new culture – a Bangsa Malaysia – as well as recreating new socio-economic political structures to inculcate a sense of cohesion and common destiny and purpose in nation building.

    Whatever language we adopt, we cannot overlook the role of a common language as a lingua franca and the importance of perfecting our language proficiency as without it, the purpose of effective communication between peoples, between government to governed ,etc, is lost. And it is always a plus to know an additional language, the more the better ! 🙂

  10. It is all about the politicization of language and education. It has nothing to do about being loyal and patriotic.

    Why do you think ambitious UMNO leaders fight as if their lives depended on it to gain control of the education portfolio?? The Education Minister’s job is seen as training for future Prime Ministers because of the opportunities they afford to aspiring leaders to nurture and develop their grassroots support among ordinary Malays.

    Do not think they did it with the best of intention for citizens of this country but for their own. While the country went through violent gyrations as a result of policies like this, as academic standards in our tertiary institutions went into a free fall, Ministers delighted in sending their children overseas. Name me one UMNO Minister who did not send his or her children overseas and instead made them attend local schools, colleges and universities when they could afford to do so – with the help of tax payers, of course.
    Mr. Bean JD,

    UMNO Ministers with the connivance of bodek types in MCA and MIC have decided to use education to create an elite class which will be given the divine right to be educated in the best schools, preferably ivy league ones while the rest of us minions are educated in local institutions whose curriculum is standardised to ensure that we cannot think, and we do not need to use our brains, because the smart asses on the top decide what is good for us. All they want from us is obedience and conformity. Education is used as an instrument of political control for regime survival. That is reality.

    Until we can change that, there is no hope for an open and liberal Malaysian society where we free to think and act rationally. We have bastardised by these asses.—Din Merican

  11. The reason why I would push for English in our entire education system is not because of any unifying element but simply because without it we are at a distinct disadvantage in the present world. China and Japan might have done well without it but even they (and Koreans etc) are now going full steam ahead with English.

    A minimum of three languages for every student – that’s what I would aim for.

  12. “distinct disadvantage in the present world”

    Would you like to take that apart, Isa so we could see it better. Only one vague advantage?! I would have thought, many. Common, let’s share it. Otherwise, it’s only your “one”! I think you have many! 😉

    People who only know English are dying to know other languages. The English themselves seem to think, they’ve lost their virginity!

    There could be many ways to do bizness – have a small part of a big market or have a big part of a smaller market with more room to grow. Take your pick!

    And bizness never needs to be about money, only. And other things never need to be about business only!

    And if you’re too united, kalau kena epidemic, semua kaput! 😉

  13. Hey, Mr Bean,

    Read this hell of a quote from Obama’s victory architect:

    “If you’ll teach me how to do policy, I’ll teach you how to be an asshole.” – Rahm Emanuel

    As follows: “Of all the stories that swirl around Emanuel, here is my favorite. One day Emanuel went to his best friend in the West Wing, domestic policy chief Bruce Reed. The mild-mannered Reed, regarded as a genius on policy questions, was such a nice guy that he never had a harsh word for anyone, no matter how bitter the battle. Emanuel, by contrast, was infamous as Clinton’s political pit bull and all-around enforcer, but embarrassingly ignorant in matters of policy. “Bruce,” Reed recalls Emanuel pleading, “If you’ll teach me how to do policy, I’ll teach you how to be an asshole.”—spiegel.de

  14. Mr. Din,

    Prof. Ungku A. Aziz is a man much respected for his keen intellect and his socio-economic ideas . It will be interesting to hear his critique and post -mortem of the NEP as he was involved in its launching. I won’t be surprised if he is disappointed with its outcome.

  15. Double talk and duplicity is the hallmark of most of the upper segment of the Malay urban intelligentsia who falsely project themselves as champion of the Malay language.

    Ask the PM, UMNO Ministers and the good professor himself where did they send their children for their secondary and college education, if not overseas?

    They preach Bahasa Malaysia for the plebeians – you and me, but they want English for themselves and their children. How disgusting!

  16. If I can afford it, this is the kind of education I will give my children, given the present state of education here:

    Primary education in local national schools (to get good grounding in Bahasa Malaysia)

    Secondary education and beyond in overseas countries under two conditions:
    1. they must keep in touch with Bahasa by reading articles and newspapers in that language regularly online.

    2 they must write me a simple letter of happenings in that language once a month throughout the period of their education abroad, which can be in email or snail mail

    Being well educated (God willing!) and keeping their knowledge of Bahasa alive, they can, upon their return, plod on the language to raise their level of Bahasa to that of an average Malaysian student who has completed his pre-college education in Malaysia.

  17. there are at any time just so many (read: very few) dominant languages for the conditions prevalent then. many hundreds back it was french enjoying the heydays, then at a time german, spanish, italian or even russian almost made it. now it is english just for the simple fact that US was rising and British used to be admired as the never sinking empire for a comfortably long period in history. so in a sense it was slow and steady that wins the race. not much secret but objective observation is enough for anyone to reach that conclusion. as in science even empirical data though not persuasive enough to prove anything, conclusion to be drawn, and political judgement or otherwise correctly made, would have to depend on it to convince oneself of any fact.
    at one time our leader shouted: “learn from the east!” he then meant just the japanese as anyone could see. if the same slogan is to be raised it would seem sensible to consider chinese as the choice, though it is so sensitive to better leave it implied. it is called pragmatism.

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