Malaysians Debate Language

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Malaysian politicians, schools, activists and parents have been engaged in a furious debate over what language to use for instructing the nation’s schoolchildren in math and science.

Now, MSNBC reports that negotiations between the different camps have reached a standstill. The issue is emotional and difficult to negotiate: Should Malaysian students receive math and science instruction in Malay, Malaysia’s national language, and the native language of most of its inhabitants? Or, should Malaysian students receive math and science instruction in English to better enable them to compete with students from other countries in an international job market?

Malaysia was once a British colony, and Malaysian schools once taught exclusively in English. However, after Malaysia gained its independence from Great Britain, Malaysian leaders had schools begin teaching in Malay again, to promote native culture and the use of the Malay language.

Unfortunately, this backfired on Malaysian students seeking work in an international marketplace, where English fluency is considered a desirable trait. Schools began teaching math and science in English in 2003.
Malay language activists have been trying for decades to help the Malay language evolve to meet the needs of modern Malaysians, as well as to develop a Malay vocabulary for math and science terms.

They feel that teaching math and science in English threatens their efforts. Another component of the mix is the desire of Malay’s main ethnic minorities to have these subjects taught in their native languages, Tamil and Chinese.

Since the different players in the language debate are unable to come to a resolution, a decision on the policy will have to be made by the Malaysian Cabinet. Nobody is sure what the Cabinet will decide, but one this is clear: Someone is going to walk away unhappy when the decision is announced next year.