Q&A: Samuel Isaiah (teacher) discusses English-medium education

Samuel Isaiah teaches English at SK Runchang, a primary school serving Orang Asli children in Pahang. You can read more about his creative methods and inspiring story on Facebook, or listen to interviews with him on the radio (Lite FM) or from TV broadcasts (Astro Awani and Vanakkam).

In this post, he shares some reflections about this month’s Dialog Pendidikan topic: “What should we do about English-medium education?


Which side do you generally lean towards in the English-medium education debate and why?

As an English teacher, I feel obliged to say that Mathematics and Science should be taught in English. This is only because I think it provides more opportunities for students to have meaningful use of the language and how beneficial it’ll be to pursue a science- related field in the future.

However, back when I was in school, I learnt and did exceptionally well in Mathematics and Science even though it was taught in Malay.

How might English-medium education affect our society and our shared cultural heritage?

As a teacher in an Orang Asli school, my children’s proficiency in the English language not only improves their confidence and self-belief, it also gives them the opportunity to have a voice. A voice that a global audience can appreciate.

For this reason, I believe that the mastery of the English Language enhances cultural heritage, exchange and pride. Cultural identity is what we are on the inside, more than just the language that some heroes claim everyone must have, must speak, and that speaking another language such as English is sin.

As a Malaysian Indian, I’m proud of my Indian heritage. Though I may not speak the language well, I long to learn more, and desire to be proficient. The forceful implications of the so-called upholders of the culture annoys me, and at one stage made me give up on attempting to embrace the language and improve my proficiency.

Conversely, these experiences have made the multicultural person I’m proud of being. All the English + Malay + Tamil + Jakun of me.

In your opinion, which medium of instruction is best for students’ learning?

In deciding what’s best for our student’s learning, the medium of instruction should be the least of our concerns. Students can learn in whatever language (if done right) and be awesome at anything.

As it is now, the emphasis should be on pedagogy, exemplary leadership, teacher identity, and how we bring back passion into the profession. Where our students are concerned, prominence should be given to whether our schools are yielding critical and problem-solving minds, regardless of what language is used.

Will English-medium instruction increase or reduce inequality among Malaysian children? Do you have any suggestions to bridge this gap?

In many rural locations such as mine, students often depend solely on what they receive at school, but the medium of delivery is not the biggest factor that contributes to this gap.

Thus, I’m implying that the use of English and its mastery are often used as scapegoats here, but it’s more important to look at learning from the point of view of the whole system.

Many interventions have been executed in schools. But, as we are accustomed to, these interventions on the ground are often superficial, thus bringing forth the expected superficial outcomes.

How long do you think it will take to implement English-medium education effectively?

I strongly believe it’s not the medium of delivery that’s of great concern. So how long depends on whether everything else is done right, and when there’s a significant need for it.

Do you have any other thoughts on the subject?

I’d like to emphasize that I do not have fixed views on the dispute at hand. Hence, I portrayed my views in a reflective manner, linking them to my experience as an English Language teacher and relatable instances in my life.

However, I would like to challenge two common assumptions.

  1. Is the use of English as the medium of instruction intended to provide opportunities and to increase exposure to the language? Or is it deemed as a measure of intelligence?
  2. There’s a familiar justification that the teaching of Math and Science in English will result in many rural children being left behind because they can’t cope, therefore implying that it shouldn’t be taught in English. Does this notion imply that our children aren’t good enough?

If someone asked you those questions, how would you answer? Share your thoughts below, and please remember to follow our comments policy. (It is not compulsory to include your name, email, and website in order to comment.)

For more discussion about English-medium education, see our Pengenalan post, “What should we do about English-medium education?”, and for a selection of comments from our readers, see our Apa Kata post. For even more comments, visit our Facebook page. And look out for our final synopsis post about English-medium education next week. Thank you!

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