Mother tongue is not a substitute for English
Sat, Nov 28, 2009
The Straits Times

I REFER to yesterday's Forum Online letter by Mr Jason Su, 'It's harder for those weak in English'.

Mr Su laments that the playing field is not level for those with an English language handicap. He is right but his suggestion that this situation merits reconciliation is unfounded.

It may be a harsh fact to some that the medium used for education in Singapore, save for the mother tongue, is English. This includes the teaching of mathematics and science, as mentioned by Mr Su. Furthermore, science, especially from undergraduate level onwards, envelops a wide range of more specific disciplines that could be further classified under natural and social sciences. Mathematics itself is a subset of science. Any suggestion that English ability is less consequential in the sciences is untrue.

A weak command of English would impair a student's ability to perform academically, relative to the individual's potential. The mother tongue is clearly not a substitute for English. Therefore, I see no reason for exceptions to be made for students who are weak in English but strong in the mother tongue, since the mother tongue itself does not complement the study of subjects conducted in English. In other words, while one's academic performance would surely benefit from a better command of English, the same benefit may not arise from a better command of mother tongue.

If one of the objectives of education is to prepare individuals for their career, there is no reason to dilute the importance of English in a country where the working language is English. As a member of a minority race, I can appreciate the importance of English in an environment where most people do not speak my mother tongue. In the bigger picture, since education prepares one for life, English proficiency is socially desirable in a society where people, though bilingual, have differing language skill sets.

Since proficiency in the mother tongue is advantageous in many aspects, students who demonstrate their ability to be bilingual are rewarded. At the same time, the weight and importance of English in the academic sphere is not disputed. Education is not a zero-sum game. Finding ways and means to avoid English is not a desirable solution.

Azri Zainuddin

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