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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Trap of Monolingualism

The Trap of Monolingualism
M. Bakri Musa
Language is not only a means of communication but also an instrument through which we look at the world. Fluency in a foreign language gives us another instrument to view reality, the equivalent of shining the light from a different angle and giving us a fresh perspective. While we have come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language controls our thoughts, nonetheless the way we look at reality is conditioned by the habits and attributes of our mother tongue.
            When hunting with an Australian aborigine, telling him that there is a kangaroo on the left would not be terribly helpful as he would first have to figure out whether you are referring to his or your left, a critical differentiation. It would be more meaningful and less chance of your being struck by a stray bullet if you were to say that the critter is to the west or east. Those Australian natives are more adept with cardinal signs. Out in the arid barren plains of the continent’s interior, there are few terrestrial landmarks to make meaningful references to left or right.
            In their book In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition, Ellen Bialystok and Kenji Hakuta suggest that the benefits of being bilingual go beyond knowing two languages. As the structures and ideas of languages are different, a child has to think in more complex ways than if he were to know only one language. That increases “meta-linguistic awareness,” a greater sensitivity to language in general and awareness of its meaning and structure.
            This heightened sensitivity transfers to other areas, as with the ability to extract core ideas from extraneous information, or to use the language of engineers, enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio. This is a useful and critical analytical skill. When you are bilingual you grasp concepts or core facts quickly; you are not easily distracted by the language or presentation.
            Studies with f MRI show that the bilingual brain is also more efficient, at least with respect to translations. Those bilingual from an early age do not go through the mental process of translating, rather they grasp the concept right away and then express it in the other language, skipping the translating step.
            Consider those familiar with only the imperial system. When told that it is 20 degrees Centigrade outside, they first have to convert that into Fahrenheit (68F) and only then could surmise that it is pleasant. If they were facile with both systems, they would know right away that 20 degrees Centigrade is quite pleasant, while 35, uncomfortably hot.
            It does not matter what the second language is, the key point is to have another instrument to look at reality, another perspective. Malaysia’s plural population affords splendid opportunities to learn another language. Homogenous societies like Japan are handicapped in this respect. English is taught in Japanese schools right from kindergarten, yet the average Japanese student has difficulty communicating in English.
            Perversely, Malay language nationalists use Japan as an example for resisting the teaching of English. Japan is an economic and technological powerhouse despite its students not being fluent in English, those language nationalists argue. That is a gross misreading of the Japanese situation. Japanese leaders are very much aware how much of a handicap their students face and are aggressively remedying the situation by recruiting thousands of native English-speaking teachers from abroad, as is China today.
            English fluency in itself is no magic bullet. India and the Philippines would shatter that illusion. Not knowing English however, is a major handicap.
            The most advantaged in this globalized world are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. American students are now required to learn a second language, in recognition of this reality. Second to that would be those who speak only one language, but that language is English. The least advantaged, or most handicapped, are those who speak only one language, and that language is other than English. That unfortunately is the fate of most Malays. Little wonder that we do not do well in commerce, education, and other endeavors.
            In Malaysia, most non-Malays are already bilingual, their native tongue and Malay; many are also trilingual, with English. That gives them significant advantages in the marketplace and elsewhere. With their multiple-language skills they are able to view reality from many perspectives, giving them significant cognitive advantages. I attribute their success to this fact, not to any intrinsic superiority of their race or culture. You are not likely to succeed in Malaysia or anywhere else if all you know is Hokkien or Malayalam.
            Malays have the capacity to be fluently bilingual (English and Malay), or even trilingual, with Arabic. Those who are unilingual are handicapping themselves and trapping their minds.
            English fluency confers many significant advantages as it is the language of commerce and science. In science with only Malay you would never go beyond the elementary stuff. Then there is the Internet, which is predominantly English. To take full advantage of this digital universe you have to be fluent in English.
            As to why English and not say, Chinese, has achieved this status, only Allah knows, as we Muslims would put it. After all, more people speak Mandarin. There are more people learning English in China than in the United Kingdom.
            For Malays, there is an extra and important psychological benefit for knowing English. It has long been acknowledged as the language of the elite, the legacy of colonization. Being English-illiterate thus carried a certain stigma, implying that your world does not extend beyond the kampung. When Malays in Malaysia engage in conversations with each other, they do so in English. That sentiment of enhanced social status associated with English fluency is still entrenched today if not even stronger no matter how hard Malay nationalists try to portray it as otherwise. The fact remains; if you are illiterate in English you would be treated as being from the underclass, from the village. If people treat you like that, pretty soon you behave that way. That is the major psychological handicap facing Malays who are English-illiterate.
            An oft-cited explanation for Malay backwardness is our lack of self-confidence. Our lack of English fluency contributes to this. Engaging our people in motivational speeches and rah rah rallies, or endlessly proclaiming the superiority of our language and culture would never boost the core confidence of our people. On the other hand, teach them English and make them comfortable and fluent in that language, then watch their confidence grow. This is especially true of the young.
            Those who lack self-confidence react in one of two ways. One, they become brashly overconfident to the point of being obnoxious. They know it all. Do not bother them with facts or new insights; their minds are already made up and nothing could shake their confidence. Woe betides anyone unfortunate enough to work with, or especially, under them. Psychologists refer to this non-productive pattern of behavior as reaction formation.
            The second way those who lack confidence react is by retreating to their comfort zone underneath the old familiar coconut shell. Regression, in the language of psychologists. They have no interest in anything beyond as they do not understand it and more significantly, they refuse to try. Their oft-cited excuse for retreating would be that that they are busy enough in their own immediate world, there is little need to venture beyond.
            I noticed this with young doctors who were graduates of Indonesian universities when I worked in Malaysia in the 1970s. They may be keen on surgery initially but when they found the workload rough because of their limited English proficiency (my seminars and reading lists were in English), they would ask to be released because they were all of a sudden “no longer interested in surgery.” When I tried to arrange special English classes, they felt offended. They saw that as an insult, not assistance. What the Stanford psychologist Claude Steel referred to as self-affirmation threat.
            Abroad, when Malays meet a fellow Malay, we converse in Malay. Part of the reason is of course that we long to hear our native tongue spoken. The other is that if you are in America you are obviously fluent in English, so that is no longer a useful differentiating social indicator.
            Malay is the national language of Malaysia; all Malaysians must be fluent in it. You cannot consider yourself a true Malaysian otherwise. However, whether non- Malays are fluent in Malay is not my concern; nor is that pertinent to my discussion. My concern is with advancing Malays through liberating their minds. Knowing a second or even a third language is the quickest path towards that end.
Next:  Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Libertaion Thorugh Science

Liberation Through Science
M. Bakri Musa

The low level of science literacy among Malaysian students, most acute among Malays, is well documented. Science is important for two reasons. The first is obvious; nearly all the advances responsible for our material comfort, improvements in health and life, as well as our comprehension of our physical and social world are due to science. It behooves us to make our future citizens science literate. Before pursuing that, I will dispose of the second reason.
            This second reason is less obvious but more compelling. Science presents a unique way of looking at the world and an approach towards problem solving. Hamka once said that Allah gave us two Korans; one He revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., the other, this wonderful universe. We have a responsibility to study both Korans. With the first, He gave us an exceptional teacher in the person of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w; with the second, He has equipped us with akal, intellect, an attribute unique only unto humans.
            Hamka’s two Korans metaphor is the best reconciliation of faith and reason, of revelation and experimentation.
            Using akal or rational thinking is what science is all about. It is based on empirical evidence, not speculation or philosophizing. You observe the world around you, make a tentative hypothesis to explain what you have observed, and then test it through experimentation or its predictive accuracy. In many respects, the scientific mind is like that of a child; always curious and always learning, as well as constantly formulating, testing, and re-formulating its hypothesis of reality.
            That at least is the ideal of science. In the real world however, things are not necessarily so neat or elegant. Scientists too are subject to the usual human foibles and narrow-mindedness. In collecting data, scientists are like everyone else, subject to “confirmation bias.” When the data do not support the theory, the usual reaction is to blame the experiment and or experiemnter, especially when he is not from the establishment and the prevailing theory has been postulated by someone eminent and in authority.
                  In his book The Mismeasure of Man, the late Stephen Jay Gould debunked the 18th Century “science” of craniometry, where by measuring the size and conformation of human skulls one could classify the various races and purportedly make inferences on their intellectual capacity. Gould made the singular point that to embark on such an enquiry one must have a priori belief in the different intellectual capabilities of the various races, and that those differences in turn are related to skull size and conformation; hence the measurements.
            Subsequent empirical studies debunked that thesis. That is the beauty of science; the certitudes of today could be the butt of tomorrow’s jokes. As for skull conformations, consider the flat back of the heads of Malays for example. That has more to do with cultural child-rearing practices. We put our babies to sleep on their backs; Europeans on their tummies, with the face turned sideways to avoid being smothered. Incidentally, today’s pediatricians advise mothers to avoid that practice as it is associated with a high incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Score one for traditional Malay culture!
            Returning to the first rationale, making citizens science literate and mathematically competent is a practical necessity in today’s world, unless you wish your society to remain backward. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) shows that a nation’s economic development is correlated with, and in fact due in large part to the scientific and mathematical skills as well as the language and critical thinking ability of its workers. All other criteria, such as the amount of money expended on education, class size, or years in the classroom are irrelevant. By these other criteria Egypt is on par with South Korea, but the economies and social development of the two countries could not be more different. The Koreans have much superior science and mathematical skills. That in turn translates into their superior economic and social developments.
            The deficiency with science teaching in Malaysia lies with both approach and content. The subject content is totally unrelated to the pupils’ environment, making it difficult to capture their interest. The loaded national syllabus prevents the teacher from exploring the children’s natural world. A school may be on the beach but the pupils learn nothing about the tides and inter-tidal marine environment throughout their school years; likewise, students living near rivers or deltas would be totally ignorant of their riparian ecology.
            For many reasons, primarily financial, experiments–the essence of science–are now mostly demonstrated to but rarely repeated by students. Now in a misuse of computers, those experiments are simulated digitally, teaching students that real life is as predictable as the simplistic software engineers’ algorithm would have it.
            Very few schools have programs related to their immediate environment. My old school in Kuala Pilah way back in the 1950s had a weather station that collected data on rainfall, wind, and daily temperatures. Our job was to present the data in a variety of formats, typically graphs and tables. We were able to compare our data with what was written in the textbooks. Likewise, during my primary school I remember doing experiments on seed germination using corn and green peas, being ready examples of mono and di-cotyledons, as well as observing the metamorphosis of banana leaf moths, an ubiquitous insect.
            In California, my son’s elementary school science project had the pupils examine owl pellets and from there deduce the birds’ diet. In my grandson’s Grade One class, the children did experiments with oil, water and cork to demonstrate the concept of density and buoyancy. There are literally thousands of such tangible, easily performed experiments to stimulate the students’ interest in science. Those exercises may not be in the syllabus or be tested in the final examinations, but they will sustain the students’ interest, and more importantly, help them absorb the essence of the scientific method.
Next:  The Trap of Mono Lingualism

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016