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  • Don't teach maths and science in English

Students taught in their local language still rank high in maths and science tests
Image credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

English may be the language of science, but students learn better and contribute more when taught in their local tongue, says Giovanni Tapang.

What language should be used to teach science and mathematics? It's a question that often provokes disagreement among educators in charge of implementing the standard curriculum of many non-English speaking countries.

For some, it's a practical matter of meeting current employment demands with flexible education policies and teaching practices. But others feel teaching needs a clear national objective for educational development.

I agree with the latter view — and consider that science and maths have to be understood in the local tongue if a country wants to transform the subjects into real economic benefits.

English for commerce, not education

The point is often made that English is the lingua franca of both commerce and science. In our globalised age, fluency in English is seen to enhance competitiveness, and is certainly essential for those who come from developing countries, where most industries are owned or run by foreign (usually English-speaking) entities.

The ability to write and speak well in English is usually one of the most important criteria set by employers.

But critics of English as medium of instruction say that such move is detrimental to both the quality of the learning process and the development of critical thinking. This is because most school children come from homes in which their mother tongue is the predominant language, resulting to their early social marginalization.

Some nations have taken a mixed approach. In the Philippines, science and maths are taught in English, while other subjects are taught in Filipino. The Philippines has more than 120 other languages, and the Department of Education also allows local languages for the teaching of most subjects. This is because children naturally use the language they grow up with to understand the world around them.

The education department also believes that teaching in the local language will encourage children to stay in school rather than drop out, which is a big problem in the Philippines, where only 14 out of every 100 children who enrol in grade 1 will graduate with a college degree.

Studies conducted by organisations such as Unesco and the World Bank, as well as by local institutions, show that pupils learn faster, better and with enthusiasm when taught in their vernacular language.

In other countries, debateson the language for science and maths have led to changes in policy. In Malaysia, for example, there have been fierce debates between the proponents of Bahasa Malaysia and English. In 2003, Malaysia re-adopted English, but in 2009 decided to return to Bahasa from this year.

Maths and science are not exceptions

Yet despite the prominence of English as the language of instruction, it is not a requisite for achieving excellence in maths and science. Countries that rank high in maths and science tests in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement), all have basic instruction in their local tongue (with the exception of Singapore).

TIMSS is an important benchmark for comparing standards in maths and science around the world; the tests have been administered every four years since 1995.  

Eighth grade students in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have – together with Singapore -- consistently ranked high in maths and science tests. These countries teach their basic education (including science and maths) in their local language, with English integrated only as a part of a compulsory curriculum.

Ironically, among the tail-enders are the English-speaking United States and the Philippines.

The challenge is worthwhile

Teaching all subjects in the local language not only enhances understanding for learners, but also paves the way for more potential for national development.

Teaching science and maths in the vernacular is not without its challenges. Instruction is an activity that involves the personal experiences of teachers and students — cultural and linguistic factors need to be taken into account to help students make sense of new information.

There is also a need to translate important journals, books and other educational materials. Unfortunately, most textbooks in the developing world are untranslated English imports. Apart from the language barrier, they often use examples that are valid only in the United States or the United Kingdom.

The training of teachers, and their teaching materials, must be in the local language as well. We don't need to invent new words for scientific terms; existing foreign terms that are used by convention can be used. But the rest of the translation still requires a lot of work, and an investment that education ministries are usually not willing to make.

It is important to note that the prominence of English is a product of history, much like the use of Latin from medieval times. Scholars, then and now, master each other's work in books and publications written in a common language. Just as English supplanted Latin and other European languages, we may yet see achange to another language.

But history also shows us many examples where the dominance of a particular language for scholarship does not preclude the publishing of excellent research in a native language. Teaching science and mathematics in the vernacular is no barrier to science excellence, and would result in better understanding of the world around us.

Giovanni Tapang is an associate professor at the National Institute of Physics, University of the Philippines.

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