Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Medium of instruction

Bhutan and Singapore may be the only Asian countries with English-medium national education systems.

However, there are several other countries, especially former British or American colonies, where English is not taught as a foreign language but used rather as the medium to teach certain subjects. In Brunei secondary schools, English is used more than the ‘national language’. In the Philippines and Malaysia it is used for science and maths, with more culturally- or socially-orientated subjects taught in the national languages. English is the main medium of instruction in many Indian secondary schools and most universities. Gandhi once complained that he could have mastered maths and science in half the time if he had been allowed to study them in his native Gujerati .

Interestingly, English is starting to be used as a medium instruction in some countries that were never anglophone colonies. In China’s Guandong Province, for instance, 200 state school have been teaching certain subjects in English since 2003. English-medium instruction is expanding particularly fast in the private sector.

Beijing’s Harrow and Eton international schools (named after prestigious British schools) were originally targeted at foreign residents but are increasingly popular with wealthier Chinese.

Harrow also has a branch in Thailand. Some Bangkok schools have an English-medium stream for children whose parents pay higher fees. They also get air-conditioning for their extra money.

Not surprisingly, the practice of paying extra to have children educated in English is controversial. On the one hand, many parents say they should be free to give their children what they see as an important advantage for their future. Some feel that since most scientific research is published in English nowadays their children should study it in that language from the start. A recent letter to the Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini claimed that children liked studying science in English because there was far more scientific information on the internet in English than in Malay.

On the other hand, for over fifty years there has been a consensus among educators that any subject is best taught in one’s mother tongue, at least when children are younger. Some parents fear that standards of maths and science will decline if they are taught in a second or foreign language, without any compensatory improvement in English standards. One contributor to Malaysiakini described how the teachers at one school had to simplify content when they were ordered to teach in English ten years ago. This is in contrast to a 2010 UN report suggesting that not only English, but also science and maths, had started to improve in Malaysian schools after the introduction of English instruction. Another contributor pointed out that science and maths standards are high in countries like China and Taiwan, where they are not taught in English, than in the Philippines and Malaysia, where they are.

In addition to pedagogical arguments, the debate over medium of instruction has economic, social and political dimensions. English-medium instruction can divide societies between the English-speaking rich and urban and the non-English speaking poor and rural. In this sense, countries like China and Thailand are not so different from former British and American colonies. When Malaysia started teaching maths and science in English ten years go the new policy was popular in cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and even persuaded some parents to keep their children in the state sector rather than send them to private schools. But it was less popular in the countryside, where many teachers did not know English well enough to teach in it and children had few opportunities to use English outside school.

Malaysia recently decided to go back to teaching everything in Malay. So now it is parents in the cities who are unhappy. The basic problem lies in trying to have one policy for the whole country, when the circumstances of each area and even each family differ so much. But many politicians, and even some educators, say it is quite natural for a country to have one common national language policy.