Enhancing Language Retention and Proficiency Through Multilingualism and Effective Teaching Methods

Only by embracing multilingualism can our nation move forward to become one of the most competitive nations and align itself with global trends in education.

182 0
182 0
Englis

Published by AstroAwani & BusinessToday, image by AstroAwani.

Being multilingual is one of the most prominent features of Malaysians. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country, the majority of Malaysians are bilingual, fluent in both Malay and English. A significant number are trilingual if they decide to pick up their mother tongue or Arabic.

However, the multilingualism of Malaysians has been slowly dwindling in the past decades.

Although the recent EF English Proficiency Index in 2023 ranked us 25th out of 113 countries, it ultimately focuses only on reading and listening, and the median age of respondents is 26 years old, with 88% under the age of 35.

On top of that, respondents aged 18 to 20 have significantly lower scores compared to other age groups, which could result in a major decline in overall scores in the future.

Coinciding with the report are various statements from employers regarding our graduates’ employability, where most have listed poor command of English as their top concern.

This is despite the fact that English is a compulsory subject for our students.

It has been established that language exposure is the key to language acquisition, and our Ministry of Education (MOE) has acknowledged this.

The MOE has in the past implemented various strategies to enhance the proficiency of English among students, most notably the PPSMI and Dual Language Programme (DLP).

The PPSMI was introduced in 2003 by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and was subsequently abolished in 2011. It mandated schools to teach science and mathematics in English, which was believed to be able to improve students’ command of English.

After the abolishment of PPSMI, the government introduced DLP in 2016. This program allowed schools that meet the requirements to offer classes that teach science and mathematics in English while also keeping Malay classes as an option for students.

Though well-intentioned, the two policies have courted a large number of controversies. PPSMI was claimed to be a failure, and a more recent report states that it caused students’ proficiency in science and mathematics to decline.

DLP, on the other hand, although widely accepted by parent groups, was said to have contributed to the lower proficiency in Malay and mother tongues. However, this assertion lacks specific reference to a rigorous scientific study conducted to substantiate such a claim.

Nevertheless, the current MOE has cited this as the reason for mandating non-DLP classes in full DLP schools. Coupled with the report of the number of DLP classes being subtly reduced (The Star, 2024) and no additional funding for DLP, this has caused panic among parent groups, who fear that DLP might one day come to an end.

The debate on mandating non-DLP classes brings the argument back to the dwindling multilingualism of Malaysia, which we have seen the negative impact of in the form of declining competency in our graduates.

The majority of people who oppose DLP fear that the increased usage in English would, in turn, limit exposure to Malay, thus contributing to the decline in Malay mastery.

However, studies have shown that this might not be the case.

According to Sorokina and Mugno (2024), no significant negative relationship was found between proficiency in the native language (L1) and second language (L2). In fact, their study suggests that L1 retention is possible amidst the acquisition of L2 and higher proficiency in L2 is also associated with greater L1 retention.

While the study above examined Russian-English bilinguals, an earlier study that examined Spanish-Swedish bilinguals showed similar results, further claiming that the effect is more profound in people with language aptitude (Bylund & Ramírez-Galan, 2014).

One might argue that learning multiple languages at once would negatively impact performance since time and attention have to be split between multiple languages. Yet, this might not be entirely accurate.

Huang et al. (2020) conducted a study to examine the impact of learning a third language (L3) in conjunction with a still-developing L2. The study found no evidence suggesting learning L2 and L3 simultaneously would hinder the development of L2.

Although the variability of L2+L3 learners’ fluency in L2 was higher, another study by the same group of researchers demonstrated that higher variability in writing scores correlates positively with higher writing proficiency (Huang et al., 2020a).

In short, Huang et al. (2020) suggest that learning L3 alongside L2 would not slow down the learning of L2. Despite some initial destabilisation of the L2 system, it would level off in the future, and this destabilisation could be a sign of greater development in the long run.

Though the samples of the studies are from university-level students and focus on Mandarin, English and Russian as their language of choice, the result can be translated into our context without major mismatch.

First, it was established that the sensitive period of language learning starts to diminish around the age of 12, meaning that university student has to put more effort into their learning, on top of the regular curriculum of their major.

Second, the Mandarin-English-Russian combination can be viewed as a much harder combination than the mother tongue-Malay-English combination, due to the lack of similarity among the former combination in terms of language components. The Malay-English combination is considered easier since both languages use the basic Latin script and have similar characteristics in vowel sounds, loanwords, and semantics (Azmi et al., 2016).

The causes of previous failures of PPSMI and the seeming ineffectiveness of DLP could largely be attributed to the uninspiring teaching methods that promote memorisation, and the overly difficult curriculum that thrusts children into intense syllabi despite lacking basic literacy skills (Refer to “Primary school education: Teach them how to walk before running”).

Language learning through memorisation has been proven to be ineffective not only in Malaysia but also in other countries, notably in the Netherlands, a country renowned for its meticulousness in integrating scientific principles into teaching methodologies. In the Netherlands, teachers who hold double PhDs in education and their respective fields of teaching, as well as policymakers, refrain from making substantial changes to teaching methods and curriculum until they have gathered sufficient scientific evidence to support such changes. 

In the Netherlands, French is a compulsory foreign language subject that students spend six years studying. However, their students’ level in French was not reflective of the time invested in learning it, suggesting that the old rote learning has been ineffective (The Conversation, 2022).

Netherlands has been exploring alternative methods of teaching foreign languages to their children, and one of the methods being developed and implemented is the Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM).

AIM prioritises the use of gestures, music, dance, and storytelling to aid in children’s language acquisition and create an environment where children can express themselves using the languages they have learned.

This is similar to, if not the same, method that Finland has been using in the past. In Finland, early language teaching has been solely focused on integrating language learning into action, involving children in various physical activities. This method has been proven to be extremely successful.

According to Statistics Finland (2018), 93% of Finns between the age of 18 to 64 know a foreign language, and 78% can speak more than 2 foreign languages. In addition to their two national languages (Finnish and Swedish), their proficiency rate in English was at 90% as of 2017, a significant increase from 73% in the year 2000 (Statistics Finland, 2018a).

It is worth noting that prior to 2020, Finns only began learning their first foreign language in third grade (Year 3 equivalent in Malaysia). This is consistent with one of the observations of Huang et al. (2020), where they found that participants who began learning L3 one year after their L2 demonstrated higher fluency in L2 compared to L2+L3 learners.

Although the policy of Finland prior to 2020 and the results from Huang et al. (2020) seem to suggest a buffer between native and foreign language studies, the implications of this buffer have not been fully investigated.

For instance, Huang et al. (2020) only compared L2 proficiency between groups but did not record the proficiency of L3. Furthermore, Finland has made changes to their system, mandating that their children start learning a foreign language in the second semester of first grade (Learning Scoop, 2020).

Thus, it is recommended that the government maintain the current general outline of the new curriculum while placing special emphasis on the imperative to implement considerably improved methods in language teaching (aligned with science and global best practices).

There is compelling empirical evidence to suggest that the expansion of DLP for increased exposure to English can enhance our students’ proficiency in both Malay and English simultaneously, provided proper methodologies are used.

This is a crucial decision to make, as only by embracing multilingualism can our nation move forward to become one of the most competitive nations and align itself with global trends in education.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strate

Being multilingual is one of the most prominent features of Malaysians. Living in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country, the majority of Malaysians are bilingual, fluent in both Malay and English. A significant number are trilingual if they decide to pick up their mother tongue or Arabic.

However, the multilingualism of Malaysians has been slowly dwindling in the past decades.

Although the recent EF English Proficiency Index in 2023 ranked us 25th out of 113 countries, it ultimately focuses only on reading and listening, and the median age of respondents is 26 years old, with 88% under the age of 35.

On top of that, respondents aged 18 to 20 have significantly lower scores compared to other age groups, which could result in a major decline in overall scores in the future.

Coinciding with the report are various statements from employers regarding our graduates’ employability, where most have listed poor command of English as their top concern.

This is despite the fact that English is a compulsory subject for our students.

It has been established that language exposure is the key to language acquisition, and our Ministry of Education (MOE) has acknowledged this.

The MOE has in the past implemented various strategies to enhance the proficiency of English among students, most notably the PPSMI and Dual Language Programme (DLP).

The PPSMI was introduced in 2003 by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and was subsequently abolished in 2011. It mandated schools to teach science and mathematics in English, which was believed to be able to improve students’ command of English.

After the abolishment of PPSMI, the government introduced DLP in 2016. This program allowed schools that meet the requirements to offer classes that teach science and mathematics in English while also keeping Malay classes as an option for students.

Though well-intentioned, the two policies have courted a large number of controversies. PPSMI was claimed to be a failure, and a more recent report states that it caused students’ proficiency in science and mathematics to decline.

DLP, on the other hand, although widely accepted by parent groups, was said to have contributed to the lower proficiency in Malay and mother tongues. However, this assertion lacks specific reference to a rigorous scientific study conducted to substantiate such a claim.

Nevertheless, the current MOE has cited this as the reason for mandating non-DLP classes in full DLP schools. Coupled with the report of the number of DLP classes being subtly reduced (The Star, 2024) and no additional funding for DLP, this has caused panic among parent groups, who fear that DLP might one day come to an end.

The debate on mandating non-DLP classes brings the argument back to the dwindling multilingualism of Malaysia, which we have seen the negative impact of in the form of declining competency in our graduates.

The majority of people who oppose DLP fear that the increased usage in English would, in turn, limit exposure to Malay, thus contributing to the decline in Malay mastery.

However, studies have shown that this might not be the case.

According to Sorokina and Mugno (2024), no significant negative relationship was found between proficiency in the native language (L1) and second language (L2). In fact, their study suggests that L1 retention is possible amidst the acquisition of L2 and higher proficiency in L2 is also associated with greater L1 retention.

While the study above examined Russian-English bilinguals, an earlier study that examined Spanish-Swedish bilinguals showed similar results, further claiming that the effect is more profound in people with language aptitude (Bylund & Ramírez-Galan, 2014).

One might argue that learning multiple languages at once would negatively impact performance since time and attention have to be split between multiple languages. Yet, this might not be entirely accurate.

Huang et al. (2020) conducted a study to examine the impact of learning a third language (L3) in conjunction with a still-developing L2. The study found no evidence suggesting learning L2 and L3 simultaneously would hinder the development of L2.

Although the variability of L2+L3 learners’ fluency in L2 was higher, another study by the same group of researchers demonstrated that higher variability in writing scores correlates positively with higher writing proficiency (Huang et al., 2020a).

In short, Huang et al. (2020) suggest that learning L3 alongside L2 would not slow down the learning of L2. Despite some initial destabilisation of the L2 system, it would level off in the future, and this destabilisation could be a sign of greater development in the long run.

Though the samples of the studies are from university-level students and focus on Mandarin, English and Russian as their language of choice, the result can be translated into our context without major mismatch.

First, it was established that the sensitive period of language learning starts to diminish around the age of 12, meaning that university student has to put more effort into their learning, on top of the regular curriculum of their major.

Second, the Mandarin-English-Russian combination can be viewed as a much harder combination than the mother tongue-Malay-English combination, due to the lack of similarity among the former combination in terms of language components. The Malay-English combination is considered easier since both languages use the basic Latin script and have similar characteristics in vowel sounds, loanwords, and semantics (Azmi et al., 2016).

The causes of previous failures of PPSMI and the seeming ineffectiveness of DLP could largely be attributed to the uninspiring teaching methods that promote memorisation, and the overly difficult curriculum that thrusts children into intense syllabi despite lacking basic literacy skills (Refer to “Primary school education: Teach them how to walk before running”).

Language learning through memorisation has been proven to be ineffective not only in Malaysia but also in other countries, notably in the Netherlands, a country renowned for its meticulousness in integrating scientific principles into teaching methodologies. In the Netherlands, teachers who hold double PhDs in education and their respective fields of teaching, as well as policymakers, refrain from making substantial changes to teaching methods and curriculum until they have gathered sufficient scientific evidence to support such changes. 

In the Netherlands, French is a compulsory foreign language subject that students spend six years studying. However, their students’ level in French was not reflective of the time invested in learning it, suggesting that the old rote learning has been ineffective (The Conversation, 2022).

Netherlands has been exploring alternative methods of teaching foreign languages to their children, and one of the methods being developed and implemented is the Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM).

AIM prioritises the use of gestures, music, dance, and storytelling to aid in children’s language acquisition and create an environment where children can express themselves using the languages they have learned.

This is similar to, if not the same, method that Finland has been using in the past. In Finland, early language teaching has been solely focused on integrating language learning into action, involving children in various physical activities. This method has been proven to be extremely successful.

According to Statistics Finland (2018), 93% of Finns between the age of 18 to 64 know a foreign language, and 78% can speak more than 2 foreign languages. In addition to their two national languages (Finnish and Swedish), their proficiency rate in English was at 90% as of 2017, a significant increase from 73% in the year 2000 (Statistics Finland, 2018a).

It is worth noting that prior to 2020, Finns only began learning their first foreign language in third grade (Year 3 equivalent in Malaysia). This is consistent with one of the observations of Huang et al. (2020), where they found that participants who began learning L3 one year after their L2 demonstrated higher fluency in L2 compared to L2+L3 learners.

Although the policy of Finland prior to 2020 and the results from Huang et al. (2020) seem to suggest a buffer between native and foreign language studies, the implications of this buffer have not been fully investigated.

For instance, Huang et al. (2020) only compared L2 proficiency between groups but did not record the proficiency of L3. Furthermore, Finland has made changes to their system, mandating that their children start learning a foreign language in the second semester of first grade (Learning Scoop, 2020).

Thus, it is recommended that the government maintain the current general outline of the new curriculum while placing special emphasis on the imperative to implement considerably improved methods in language teaching (aligned with science and global best practices).

There is compelling empirical evidence to suggest that the expansion of DLP for increased exposure to English can enhance our students’ proficiency in both Malay and English simultaneously, provided proper methodologies are used.

This is a crucial decision to make, as only by embracing multilingualism can our nation move forward to become one of the most competitive nations and align itself with global trends in education.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

gic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

In this article