Teaching Science and Maths in English – another perspective

This post is taken from a comment in the previous article published yesterday in this blog, by our reader-thinker klm. I think there is  a lot of logic in this if we want Malaysia to be globally competitive:

Teaching Science and Maths In English – Another Perspective

1. Why English?
There are about 500,000 words in the Oxford English dictionary. There are 1 million words if one include scientific and technical terms.

In contrast, there are 49,000 entries in Kamus Dewan. Therefore,it is very challenging to use BM to describe the concepts and science of the technological civilization that we are in.

A language with 49,000 words is definitely inadequate to handle the technological civilisation we are in. Even, the French language with about 200,000 word is finding it a big challenge to stop the onslaught of English.

2. English is not one language

I would like to suggest that modern English is not one language but it is made up of many distinct and different sub languages based on a common structure. Each sub language uses words defined and known in each community of interest. Unlike the ancient time words evolved by geographic regions, today words evolved by community of interest. Words are defined and adapted by each community of interest without regard of geography or linguistic origin. But they all end up in the universal English language of the community of interest.

Take the word Tsunami. It is of Japanese origin. But it had been adopted by the science community as an English word to describe the super wave phenomenon.

3. Structure of contemporary English

We can view contemporary English structure as one with common language base and silos of usage for different community of interests.

+———-++———++———- ++——+
|—-Englishg Grammar and Structure——–//–|

English in one community of interest may not be comprehensible to another community of interest.

4. Teaching of English

Therefore the teaching of English requires:

(1) teaching the grammar and structure of he language. This is what the new policy promised

(2) teaching the words and knowledge of each community of interest. This is what the new policy withdrew.

If Malaysia is to part of the world community, then we need our students to deal with both. Unfortunately, our politicians dont seem to see the picture in totality.



11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. klm
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 16:24:17

    Dr Hsu. You call me a thinker. I don’t know where to hide my face. 🙂


  2. pilocarpine
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 18:04:38

    klm, thanks for sharing this view.


  3. robertchai
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 21:36:10

    What a flip flop policies? Pity our children


  4. Nick
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 22:09:11

    I just watched the F1 at Nurenberg, Germany. At one point in the race, the audio came on between the English pitstop boss and Rubens Barrichello, a Brazilian driver. The conversation was in perfect english. The two commentators Steve Slater and Chris Goodwin has brought F1 close to fans for years and tonight these 2 maestros spoke non-stop throughout the race. In future, I am sure the bulk of Malaysian fans will have no chance to follow the commentaries. Isn’t F1 the culmination of science and technologies?


  5. BabaNyonya
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 07:54:54

    Dr Hsu,
    Some people use “Pendatang” as an insult. Other countries have a different view of immigrants.

    On the 4th of July, this full page ad appeared in major US papers celebrating America’s diversity and the contribution of immigrants of all races.

    I can’t imagine something like this in the NST on Aug 31.

    Among the people depicted are two Chinese scientists who won Nobel Prizes for their adopted country. There are no Malaysians, but Anh Cao, the Vietnam-born congressman from Louisiana did spend his childhood in Sungai Besi internment camp. (Although last year they depicted Vijay Singh the golfer, he was a former resident of Malaysia.)

    BTW, the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, is the son of Indian immigrants. He is seen as a potential Republican nominee for President in 2012. He, like Barack Obama, is considered native born and not an immigrant – that word only applies to people born outside the country.

    As a medical man you may be interested to know that an immigrant is the chancellor of Duke University Medical School, one of the most prestigious in the country. He is Victor Dzau, born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong.


    There are more ethnic Chinese chancellors in American Universities than Malaysia, although only 1% of the US population is of Chinese descent.

    I admire the concluding statement:

    ‘Our national motto – E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one” continues to be an ideal we can all aspire to and a true guiding light for our nation’

    It is just as applicable to Malaysia.


  6. zzz
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:46:12


    i don’t think anh cao is a scientist nor has he received a nobel prize.


  7. BabaNyonya
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 12:24:24


    No, as I said, Anh Cao is a former Vietnamese boat person who now represents New Orleans, Louisiana in the U.S. congress. The Nobel Laureates listed (you have to click on the picture to make it big enough to read) are Lee, Yang and Tsui.


  8. Rhan
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 14:27:54

    Klm the thinker,

    We all know how dominant is English and I suppose there is no point therefore to tell the same thing over and over. I strongly believe that we need to take into consideration of the Malaysia socio-economy and cultural context that evolved in the last few decades before coming into conclusion, and make a stand whether to uphold diversity or move toward integration (assimilation).

    The reason why I use the term elitism on Hsu is because I believe that in US, the land of immigrant, shall have the same argument on whether to uphold the white supremacy or embrace toward a multi-cultural and multi-racial policy. Many believe that the latter would derail progress and turn US into a weaker nation, but of course for the sake of political correctness, the white like Huntington would talk about clash of civilisation on a global basis instead of domestic dilemma.

    Here in Malaysia by looking at the political reality, we have to ask ourselves if Singapore model is an achievable one? If the answer is a clear NO, then what is the point to push forward such an unachievable idealism? Instead of advocate toward a system that would make the smart one smarter who are in the end not contribute anything to Malaysia, my opinion is we should take an approach that facilitate the rural poor to create more middle class. Hopefully this would eventually transform the preceding mindset that is feudal and race base into one that is more broadminded.

    The urban English speaking class should continue to struggle for the teaching of M&S in English. Let the rural folk to have an overall improvement on their interest toward good education in whatever language they are familiar with and don’t try to rush the whole thing the old man ways.

    At the same time, to teach M&S in mother tongue for vernacular school is the minority principles to defend diversity, this stand is beyond the understanding of the English speaking Chinese and honestly, I don’t bother wasting my time to explain to them why we are doing this.

    Whether English is the language of science, I think we should get a clearer picture in the next 20 to 30 years taking into consideration that Mandarin (Hanzi) was never an easy to grasp language. However this would be another topic we shall look into next.


  9. clearwater
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 14:48:32


    Vijay Singh the pro-golfer, born in Fiji of Indian descent, must thank his lucky stars he did not, or could not, get Malaysian PR ( his wife is Malaysian). Imagine trying to qualify for the 5 year continuous residency rule for PR, he would have had to give up playing in overseas tournaments and take a job as resident pro in one of the Malaysian golfing clubs! Ah, US of America, you get the best of the rest of the world; deservedly so, it would seem, for you value and nurture your immigrants.


  10. A true Malaysian
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 15:56:04

    I commented before that “DIVERSITY IS OUR STRENGTH”.

    This motto is IKEA’s and should be adopted by politicians of Malaysia as well. In this globalized world, best brains are logically attracted to better working and living environment and loyalty to their native countries is of little consideration. This is the trend we are facing now, and it is unstoppable. Like what pointed out by BabaNyonya, USA values these talented immigrants, and on this basis, assimilation happens naturally without any “pre-planned” or codification in USA Constitution. On this basis, loyalty of these immigrants just there naturally without questioning being grateful or otherwise.

    As for Malaysia, many of our Malay brothers and sisters are being “brain-washed” by racist politicians that Malaysia (or they called it “Tanah Melayu”) is their “last bastion”, where if they lost their political power, that’s will be the end of it and they have no where to go after losing their “last bastion”.

    It is this mindset that troubled a lot of them, from supporters of both Umno, PKR and PAS (the Malay base parties). It is because of this, “Diversity” is not valued here, to the extend of Constitution of Federal and States need mention of the “special rights” even Malay race is the majority of this land.

    It is this mindset that they have fickle mind whether to officially term Malay language as Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu. It is this mindset that caused the Malay intellectuals that opposed using of English in maths and science. Any chance to have English school back with this mindset?


  11. klm
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 12:05:35


    I take your point.

    There were many arguments for English or not for English. They are all correct. My points:

    (1) English is the universal language and not the “national ” language of UK or US. For the progressive, ambitious and science minded and where the world is the stage, learning English well is key.

    (2) For others who are happy to be a local then keep to local languages will do.

    The issue we have is how to keep the two world in one system.

    Any decision taken by the govt must take this into account. You mentioned urban and rural. I think that is wrong. We cannot keep the rural students in the local setting. They have the equal right to be on the global stage, if they so choose.

    The problem we have is that the decisions made are for one system that favour one approach or the other approach. Neither will solve the problem.
    Maybe, it is time to have dual systems and let the parents choose.


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