Whether in textbooks or spoken in lectures, language is crucial in effective education. Without a common means of communication, many students will be left behind. While education in Malaysia has predominantly used Malay, the country’s official language, in its classrooms, some Malaysian schools also include more English, Chinese and Tamil cultures into their curricula.
In most instances, immense diversity is a privilege to instill greater global awareness, but, in the Malaysian education system, it has hindered progress, especially in keeping up with other countries’ educational opportunities. To keep up in an ever-changing economy and job market, education in Malaysia needs to establish a common language for all schools.
Despite its linguistic differences, Malaysian education is goal-driven and focused on improving itself. The government released an ambitious Malaysia Education Blueprint in 2013. The detailed plan hopes to achieve universal access and full enrollment of all children from preschool to upper secondary school, improved student test scores, and reduced urban-rural, socio-economic and gender achievement gaps, all by 2020.
To meet such high standards, however, promoting a mother tongue language for education in Malaysia is key. The benefits of doing so include higher enrollment and success rates, especially for girls and rural-based students, and greater parent-teacher communication. The students that tend to feel the most marginalized, those from poorer households, are more likely to attend school, retain information, and participate in their learning.
Other countries in the region with similar struggles serve as examples of how to overcome potential language barriers. Laos has dozens of diverse languages that are mainly spoken in rural, impoverished communities. However, with education requiring fluency in Lao, the official language, children from different ethnic backgrounds were left out. With UNICEF’s support, the government took a “Schools of Quality” approach that starts children in their native language and slowly transitions them into Lao. The change has been a successful way to boost student morale and attendance.
Such benefits of a mother-tongue-based education will propel Malaysia to become a world leader in a digital economy. Students who face language barriers in their education have limited opportunities to reach their full potential. If students fall behind in understanding their studies, they will also fall behind when facing an increasingly technical-based economy. Acquiring skills in technology and STEM-related fields requires a quality, forward-thinking education as a foundation. That education appropriately requires a cohesive language to teach and learn.
Education should be an accessible service to every person, regardless of their language, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Education in Malaysia is on the right path to improving its system, but an important step forward will involve overcoming language barriers. Other countries in the region serve as testaments to the positive growth in preserving the mother tongue, and, with continued support, Malaysia too can experience this progress.
– Allie Knofczynski