Monday, 21 June 2010

The teaching of Math and Science in English: the approbation and challenges


Since 1970s, the National Education Policy implemented has mandated the use of Malay as the general medium of education whilst simultaneously maintained the use of mother tongues in Chinese and Tamil primary schools as the medium of instruction. Following an article that suggested the ineffectiveness of the present education system to produce students and graduates with good English proficiency (Awang Sulung, May 2002), this policy has been revised to allow the use of English language in the teaching Mathematics and Science starting from the primary school. The new policy was first mooted in May 2002 and implemented in January 2003. According to the former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the move was aimed at arresting the decline of English among the younger generation (New Straits Times, 19th June 2002). It is also believed that English is the language of knowledge especially in the science and technology field (New Straits Times, 17th Nov. 2002).

From the introductory stage of the policy to the implementation stage, it merely took a period of nine months for the government to materialize it. The authority eventually finalized that the inevitable step to revert back to English-medium instruction for Science and Mathematics is based on two situations:

a)  the deterioration in the command of the English language that has spread to the upper echelons of the civil service, and

b) the need to ‘leap-frog’ to higher levels of economic development to achieve global competitiveness.

In other words, the implementation of this new policy is deemed to improve the English language proficiency besides enhancing the content learning of Science and Mathematics. To discuss whether the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English starting from primary school would enhance content and language learning, it is most imperative to point out that content is present with the language learning. This paper tried to investigate the issue above from the perspective of second language acquisition (SLA).

 THE APPROBATION:  Theories On Second Language Acquisition

Most linguists, psycholinguists and psychologists agree that in the acquisition of language ‘critical period’ plays an important role. The Critical Period Hypothesis claims that there is a biological timetable of life when language can be acquired relatively easily. Beyond this period, which ends around puberty, language acquisition and learning can be increasingly difficult (Brown, 1994). This is due to certain language abilities do not develop before and after the critical period (Lenneberg, 1967; Bicherton, 1981, cited in Brown, 1994). Second language researchers suggest that there is also a critical period to SLA, after which learners seem to be incapable of acquiring native-like accent and fluency (Scovel, 1988; Long, 1990; Johnson, ,1992; Fledge, 1987; Morris et al, 1983; Patkowski, 1982, 1990; Walsh & Diller, 1981; Jacobs, 1988; Cummins, 1980; Thomson, 1991). Therefore, exposing school children to English in an early stage can be said as fitting because it helps the children who are still within the critical period to master the language.

Another area to consider is the neurological aspect. Scholars suggested that brain lateralization could influence the ability to acquire a second language (Brown, 1994). The lateralization of the brain starts at two years old and is completed around puberty (Lenneberg, 1967, cited in Brown, 1994). Because of the plasticity of the brain before lateralization takes palace around puberty, it enables children to acquire not only the first language but also a second language (Scovel, 1969, cited in Brown, 1994). The accomplishment of lateralization makes it difficult to some people to be able to easily acquire fluent control of a second language. Therefore in this light, the teaching and learning, and exposure to a second language should begin as early as possible. The teaching of Mathematics and Science in English starting from primary school seems to be a good way in allowing students to acquire the language.

 Likewise, Guiora et al (1972, cited in Brown, 1994) proposed ‘language ego’, the identity a person develops in reference to the language he speaks. In monolinguals, language ego involves the interaction of mother tongue and ego development. This self-identity is bound to the speakers’ language and ego development because in the communicative process, such identities are confirmed, shaped and reshaped. Guiora suggests that a child’s ego is dynamic, growing and flexible through puberty. As a result, a new language does not threat or inhibit that ego, and adaptation is relatively made easily, as long as there is no damaging attitudes towards the language at young age. Based on Guiora’s proposal, we can say that an excellent time to teach and expose a child to a second language is before puberty. Therefore, ideally, English as a medium of instruction in Mathematics and Science can provide the students with the necessary input to acquire the language.

 Attitude is another factor that determines the success or failure of language acquisition or learning. Most attitudes are taught, either consciously or subconsciously, by parents, other adults and peers.  Having negative attitudes towards a target language (in this case English) can affect success in learning it. Young children have not developed enough cognition to possess ‘attitudes’ that may affect the language acquisition (Brown, 1994). Thus, in this light, we can say that to ensure the success of acquisition and learning the language, it is important to teach and expose young children a second language before their attitudes towards the language could affect the acquisition process.


Other than exposure to a second language at a young age, there is also a need for sufficient opportunity to engage in meaningful use of the target language in a relatively anxiety-free environment in order to make the language acquisition and learning successful (Krashen, 1982, cited in Brown, 1994). The role of quality input as equally important in language learning (Flege, 1987; Morris, 1986, cited in Brown, 1994). In Mathematics and Science classrooms, because content is seen as more important to acquire, the language aspect of it is often neglected. The reality is, there are teachers who merely use mathematical and scientific terminologies in English but construct the sentences in the first language. For example, according to a teacher in an A-type urban school, some teachers phrase mathematical solutions as ‘two campur two sama dengan four’.

The anxiety-free environment, which is proposed by Krashen is hardly seen in our schools due to the fact that our education system is exam-oriented. It is especially rare in a classroom where the teachers are struggling for the English proficiency while teaching Mathematics and Science. This may actually impel the interests of the students if the teacher could not provide the elaborated explanations on the subject matter when it is requested. Therefore this could influence the attitudes of school children towards English and make it difficult to enhance the language learning because attitudes, social and cultural roles which a language play explain the success (or failure) of language acquisition (Hill, 1970, cited in Brown, 1994).

 The classroom challenges experienced by teachers teaching English and those teaching Science and Mathematics in English stem from three distinct realities. First, students’ limited English proficiency level. In 1953, UNESCO announced that,

It is axiomatic that the best medium for teaching a child to read is his mother-tongue. Psychologically, it is the medium of meaningful signs that in his mind works automatically for expression and understanding. Sociologically, it is a means of identification among the members of the community to which he belongs. Educationally, he learns more quickly through it than an unfamiliar language (UNESCO, 1953).”

Utilizing a second language to teach the students in the conceptual subjects like Science and Mathematics, is therefore, probably resulting in the low achievement of their cognitive/academic abilities (Hazita Azman, 2003). Scholars have proven that there is a relationship between various classroom discourse structures and the academic outcomes of limited English proficiency students. The academic language is most difficult for limited English proficiency students, when they are required to carry out a cognitively demanding academic task in context-reduced situations (Au, 1980; Cadzen, 1988; Macias, 1990; Michaels & Collins, ,1984; McCollum, 1989; Mohatt & Ericksin, 1981; Philips, 1983; Ripich & Spinelli, 1985; Tattershell & Creaghead, 1985; Trueba & Delgado-Gaitan, 1988).

 Second, there is the teachers’ limited English proficiency level and knowledge of the subjects’ linguistics demands. Cummins (1984, cited Hazita Azman, 2003) has drawn between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which characterizes the interactional functions of communications, and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), which refers exclusively to the transactional functions of language. Put tersely, BICS is the everyday use language where linguistic interactions are embedded in a situational context whilst CALP is the language ability required for academic achievement in a context-reduced environment. Before the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English is introduced, the graduates who have been saturated with the learning process in first language (Malay) supplemented by English as a second language, are rebuked for inadequacy and incompetence in English language (PROMUDA, 2002). When the graduates are deficient in BICS, how would they proceed to acquire CALP – an academic language which has no abundance of situational and paralinguistics cues at the disposal to obtain meaning of the context-reduces text (Hazita Azman, 2003)?

Third, there are the complexities of developing and integrated content and language curriculum within a ‘boxed-in’ teaching culture framework (Hazita Azman, 2003). It seems fairly obvious that if teachers are to be the ones responsible for developing the curriculum, they need time, skills and support to do so (Nunan, 1987). Many language educators cited the importance of a teacher training module which highlighted the awareness for classroom interactions on ‘student-centered’ basis. However the teaching and learning in science classes of our country is very ‘teacher-centered’ with a high degree of teacher dominance in the learning process. “Any attempt to involve students actively in the learning process seemed to be limited to doing experiments and answering questions after the teacher had told them about the observations and results of the experiments” (Sahrifah Nor, 1999, cited in Saran Kaur Gill). This is an obstacle for the students to achieve high competency in content and language learning because they do not fully utilize the language for communication.

 On the other hand, the content schemata the students bring to the Mathematics and Science classroom carry with them a great deal of discourse knowledge. Unlike the first language knowledge, the students who have no background knowledge on the second language (in this case English) may result in negative transfer when the language is found to be irrelevant in their process of learning (Scovel, 2001). Worse still, if the subject teachers are incapable of mastering the language, they may not be able to empathize with the students with their plight, let alone help ease the students through the difficult process of learning.  


Based on the theories of second language acquisition, it seems that the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English starting at primary is an ideal way to allow students to acquire the language. This is due to the fact that young children are still within the critical period of language acquisition (first and second language), the lateralization of the brain has yet to be completed, their language ego has not been developed and their attitude towards the second language has not been established. In this light, the teaching and learning, and exposure to a second language should begin as early as possible.

However, in reality, in mathematics and science classrooms, the teaching and learning of content is given more attention to than language teaching and learning. The anxiety-free environment, which is proposed by Krashen is hardly seen in our schools due to the fact that our education system is exam-oriented. There are also other prevalent problems, such as the students’ limited English proficiency level, the teachers’ limited English proficiency level and knowledge of the subjects’ linguistics demands, and complexities of developing and integrated content and language curriculum within a ‘boxed-in’ teaching culture framework. Therefore, in order to ensure to success of the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English in both content and language, the government needs to first address and overcome the challenges.


Brown, D.H. (1994). Principle of Language Learning and Teaching. London: Prentice-Hall International.

Ellis, R. (1998). Second Language Acquisition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hazita Azman. (2003). Mastering English for Science and Technology in Achieving Global Competitiveness: Issues and Realities. Paper presented at Help Institute, Kuala Lumpur (27-28th September 2003).

Saran Kaur Gill. English for Science and Mathematics: Demystifying the Concerns of Society. A seminar paper presentation.

Scovel, T. (2001). Learning New Languages: Guide to Second Language Acquisition. Canada: Heinle & Heinle.

Vivian Cook (1993). Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. London: The Macmillan Press.


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