English not only language of science and mathematics

The Malaysian Education Ministry should review the way English is taught and find ways and means to improve it, rather than rehashing the failed PPSMI in the guise of the DLP

SINCE my name was mentioned in the letter “A common medium” (The Star, Feb 18) by Datin Noor Azimah on the Dual Language Programme (DLP), I would like to respond to some of the issues raised by her on why we should continue the DLP.

First of all, I beg to differ with Noor Azimah’s notion that English is the only language of science. All her arguments about the dominance of English in scientific communications merely show that English has become the de facto communication language of science but not the only language in which established science could be taught and new science could be discovered.

Major scientific discoveries of the 20th century such as the Relativity Theory of Einstein that has enhanced our understanding of the huge expanse of space in the universe and the Quantum Theory of Heisenberg and Bohr that let us understand properties of the very tiny nanoscale structures and of atoms, were discovered in German, the language of the discoverers and not in English.

Both theories underlie almost all subsequent scientific discoveries including the very recent discovery of gravitational waves by LIGO that vindicated Einstein’s Relativity.

According to the Princeton historian of science, Prof Michael Godin in his new book, Scientific Babel, English became the dominant language of scientific communication only recently, in the last 60 years, at the expense of the previous triumvirate of scientific communication languages, English, French and German.

The Anglicization of scientific communication started much earlier by the boycott of German scientists by Western European and American scientists who published in French and English in between the World Wars. German science was further decimated by the defeat in the Second World War and many German scientists were brought over to work for America and to use English in their work.

The dominance of the United Kingdom and American publishers in scientific publications after the War squeezed out French as a scientific communication language and literally forced the English language down the throat of the scientific community, who otherwise would have continued to publish in either German, French or English as was the practice before the War. As a world-ranked scientist at the top of my own field as attested by Thomson Reuters’ World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2016, and as a professor in chemical engineering for 36 years at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), I have taught many generations of Malaysian chemical engineers in Bahasa Melayu and have supervised successfully many MSc and PhD students, who used Bahasa Melayu in the practice of world class science in UKM’s labs and in the reporting of the scientific results in their thesis.

External examiners from other universities in Malaysia were amazed and surprised but enthusiastic that world class science could be done and reported in Bahasa Melayu very well. The students then rewrote their research results in English for publication in world renowned journals.

Hence, English does not contribute anything to the science but merely as translations or rewrites of it. Since the MSc and PhD students are among the brightest of the lot, they have no problem in communicating their scientific results in Bahasa Melayu or English at international conferences with confidence because their scientific works are world class.

Renowned scientists look for the science not the language in their presentations and papers because scientific talent is rare and far between whereas the language of communication can be easily learned on the job.

Their scientific education in Bahasa Melayu at UKM did not prevent many of my students from going on to become successful professional engineers in industry and excellent lecturers and world class scientists with many of them becoming professors and world leaders in their fields of research.

One of them in particular, Prof Dr Siti Kartom Kamarudin, a true blue alumnus of UKM who graduated from UKM with BEng, MSc and PhD all in Bahasa Melayu, is also sharing the same accolade with me as one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2016.

The Malaysian PhD candidate at Glasgow University from the International Islamic University Malaysia, Hafizah Noor Isa who was involved in the seminal detection of gravitational waves recently, was taught science in Bahasa Melayu in primary and secondary school. Her Bahasa Melayu background does not impair her ability to do world class science at all.

I am sure this is also true for many science and mathematics teachers and professors all over the country, who have taught tens of thousands of students, science and mathematics in Bahasa Melayu before PPSMI, and whose students have become very successful in their chosen fields.

The fact that we have produced so many successful professors, engineers, medical doctors and scientists varying in age from 25 to 55 years old, who were taught science and mathematics in Bahasa Melayu before the PPSMI speaks volumes for itself. The logic that if only one is taught science and mathematics in English then one would be more successful in later life is a fallacy.

If this were to be true, then no Japanese, Korean and now Chinese technopreneurs would have succeeded as they apparently had with world-class brands without learning science and mathematics in English in their schools and universities.

Learning English through science and mathematics, I am sure every educator worth his salt agrees, is not the most appropriate way of learning a language. There is no evidence whatsoever that English proficiency is increased if English is used to teach science and mathematics.

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence to the contrary. The disastrous PISA and TIMMS results of 2012 where Malaysian students were behind other non-English speaking countries clearly demonstrated the failure of PPSMI because the Malaysian students who took the test were taught science and mathematics in English under the PPSMI (See more on related posts below).

Vietnamese students who were weaker in English fared a lot better than Malaysian students who were better in English. Why do we want to resurrect a programme that has clearly failed spectacularly? If the objective is to be proficient in English, then the right way to achieve it is to strengthen the teaching of the language by having better ways of teaching it in schools.

The Education Ministry should review the way English is taught and find ways and means to improve it, rather than rehashing the failed PPSMI in the guise of the DLP.

I think many people like Noor Azimah who wrote passionately about the DLP issue neglect to tell us or probably do not know the kind of science and mathematics learnt by our children in schools all over the world. Science and mathematics taught in schools are established scientific and mathematical knowledge that have been accepted by consensus of most scientists and mathematicians at that point of history. It should not be confused with new cutting-edge science and technology that a scientist and a professor like me has to deal with every day in my scientific work.

Established science and mathematics change very slowly because new scientific discoveries that would become established knowledge is rare and far between.

On the other hand, cutting-edge science changes rapidly as new theories are being postulated to explain newly discovered phenomena, which are accepted or discarded after undergoing rigorous scrutiny by the scientific community. There is no need for our children in schools to learn cutting-edge science because understanding it requires the scientific knowledge of a professor.

Not many people know that established science and mathematics have already been translated into Bahasa Melayu in numerous textbooks for primary and secondary schools as well as for universities published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and the premier universities, Universiti Malaya, UKM, Universiti Sains Malaysia,Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia over the past 40 years.

All scientific terms in all fields are already available at the Persuratan Melayu web page of the DBP. Our children can easily gain scientific knowledge by reading them.

Even fewer know that the discovery of new cutting-edge science and mathematics in Bahasa Melayu is growing at the international level over the last few years with the indexing of bi-lingual Bahasa Melayu-English scientific journals such as Sains Malaysiana by major international scientific journal indexing services such as the ISI and SCOPUS! Now scientists from all over the world can access cutting-edge scientific knowledge in Bahasa Melayu.

The whole idea of learning science and mathematics in the mother tongue is not only simply about language patriotism as has been alleged by Noor Azimah elsewhere. The central issue lies deeper than mere patriotism. It is more about being able to create new scientific knowledge from a deeper understanding of science and mathematics, which can only be achieved by learning it in the mother tongue.

I am sure we are all familiar with the history of how both the great Islamic and the European civilisations first translated and then independently created scientific and mathematical knowledge of their own in their own languages.

No country in the world that is ahead in science and technology ever teaches its children science and technology in a foreign language.


Former Founder Director & Principal Research Fellow Fuel Cell Institute, UKM

Prof of Chemical Engineering, UKM

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One Response to “English not only language of science and mathematics”

  1. rightways Says:

    It is not languages, English or Malay, etc of science and mathematics that matters. It is people’s capabilities of contributing to and excelling in science and maths.

    Obviously, Malaysian education system is broken, politicized by the incompetents!


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