Politics of language

By David D. Mathew (MySinchew))

SOME WEEKS AGO I wrote about a letter I received from a person who shall not be named which began with the words “With referencing to the above, please see my bottom”. Having read my article, many people begged me to reveal the identity of the person guilty of such appalling English.

My response was that it did not matter. Terrible English is everywhere in this country and there was no need to single this person out.

I was browsing through some shops a few months back when I came across a sign that said “Please do not touch yourself. We will help you.” Needless to say, I fled the scene as fast as my legs could carry me.

More recently I had dinner at a popular restaurant near a popular roundabout in Petaling Jaya. The quality of the English on the menu was dreadful. For vegetables, we had a choice between the “Lecture” which I believe should have been spelt lettuce and the irresistible bacteria sounding “Coli Flower” which was no doubt the cauliflower.

We were laughing so much while ordering but the waitress was oblivious to the joke. She herself could barely string a sentence of English together.

The Government’s decision to reverse the policy on the teaching of Science and Maths in English is both wrong and selfish. Coming at the heels of Datuk Seri Najib’s hundredth day as Prime Minister, the reversal is a reflection of a Government that clearly lacks the political will to make the right decision.

Let us not be concerned about the future of our children because we have to worry about the political repercussions if the policy is not reversed. In a nutshell, that seems to have been the basis of the decision.

The fact that the majority of ordinary Malaysians want English to remain as the medium of instruction for these two subjects has been nonchalantly ignored. The independent poll by the Merdeka Centre shows this quite clearly and the ongoing poll on Tun Dr. Mahathir’s blog is a foregone conclusion the way it is going thus far.

When Tun Dr. Mahathir re-introduced English for teaching Science and Maths, he justified the policy by arguing that much of the contemporary scientific literature was written in English and that it would be near impossible to translate all of it into Bahasa. This was because to translate requires three qualifications – fluency in English, fluency in Bahasa and expertise in the subject. Tun Dr. Mahathir opined that there are just not many people who can do this.

The former Prime Minister was dead right. Further, translations also take time. Scientific papers or textbooks released today become outdated extremely quickly. By the time it is translated into Bahasa, students in other countries are already reading more current material.

Proponents of the reversal take the rather misguided view that since this is Malaysia, we should just be speaking Malay and that is the most important thing. They also point to France as an example and say look at the French and how they insist in using French for everything.

With respect, Bahasa is not French. It will never have the reach of French globally and students in other countries are not going to flood into language classes just to learn Bahasa.

In any event, M. Xavier Bertrand, the former French Minister of Health was apparently once quoted as having said “I didn’t consider that as Health Service Minister, I would need English. I was wrong.”

The politicians that run this country must face reality. The need to preserve our own national identity and to protect our culture and language is important but it must be counter balanced with the importance of children learning English to be able to compete effectively on a global scale.

English is the leading language in the world of science and the Government should recognise this in order to ensure that our children become future world leaders in the various scientific fields. Simply increasing the time allocated to teaching English in general will not help to achieve this.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that Bahasa is also important because it is the national language. In fact, for purposes of protecting our national identity, which is that of a multi-cultural society, fluency in Mandarin and Tamil for example should also be held up as tremendously important.

We should be working towards a society fluent in English and Bahasa and all the other leading languages spoken in locally. The target should be to see a future generation that is able to effortlessly switch between English, Bahasa, Mandarin and Tamil at the snap of a finger. The target should also be a future generation additionally equipped with mastery of at least one leading foreign language such as Spanish, French or German.

When this happens, the ability of this country to compete globally will have no boundaries.

It will be 2010 in less than half a year. We will then be a mere 10 years away from 2020. If the politics of language still chokes us today, what hope do we have that Vision 2020 can still be achieved?
Any such hope is clearly false hope.

The problem of languages when combined variously with other concerns such as the failure of the Government to rein in the police force and also to solve religious issues relating to conversion simply makes the situation worse.

We need to get past these problems with wise solutions sans political considerations before we can reasonably begin to hope for the success of any vision let alone Vision 2020 which looms just around the corner.