Language of behaviour

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times – 27-5-2012

IT is useful to provide some context to the current debate on the use of English in schools. For example, the Hussein Onn Report of 1971 acknowledged the Malay language as the main medium of instruction while the English language retained its status as a second language.

In fact, the report proposed that “the time allocation for teaching of the English language to be increased and teachers given the necessary training in order to produce good results” in schools.

This was reemphasised in the Third Malaysia Plan Mid-Term Review of 1979 where the teaching of English as a second language would be intensified through various ways, through in-service courses, for instance. The same was stated in the Fourth Malaysia Plan (1981).

Even earlier, the Rahman Talib Report (1960) and Razak Report (1956) made special mention of the importance of a bilingual education as a feature in the nation’s education system.

More than 50 years later, we realise the far-sightedness of our leaders in their national aspiration for a bilingual nation.

The New Scientist (May 5) editorial aptly entitled, Oh, To Be Bilingual, is based on a scientific research article in the same issue which reports the alleged reluctance of most native English speakers to learn a second language. It goes on to say that an Anglophone culture “is not quite the blessing it may first appear”.

A quote from a 2005 survey carried out by the European Commission on the European Union’s 25 member states says: “The two with the lowest rates of bilingualism — as defined as being able to hold a conversation in more than one language — were the United Kingdom and Ireland. About two-thirds of people in these countries speak only English.”

In the United States, only about 25 per cent of its citizens can converse in another language, while in Australia the rates are even worse. Most likely Malaysians are comparatively better off.

This stands in contrast to continental Europe: more than half are said to be bilingual, and are immensely proud to master another language — not just English!

“People born in countries where English is not the mother tongue have their own reasons to be thankful,” says the editorial, since according to new research findings, “speaking more than one language improves cognitive function across the board, from planning and working memory to concentration and multitasking”.

This is considered one of the most “effective forms of ‘brain training’ available”, resulting in delaying the onset of dementia and sharpening the ageing mind, apart from other general mental benefits!

Being bilingual is good for the brain regardless of whether it is through formal learning or otherwise, and at whatever age.

This notion is a far cry from archaic views that it will confuse the child or even cause a lowering of the so-called all important intelligence quotient. On the contrary, it has been demonstrated that “bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in 15 verbal and non-verbal tests”.

Bilingualism also improves the brain’s “executive system”, namely “a broad suite of mental skills that centre on the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on a task at hand”.

More interesting is the suggestion that speaking a second language may have profound effect on behaviour.

One supposed reason for this is the link between language and cultural values that you experience while learning it. Still, these are just the tip of the iceberg as more findings come to light.

Indeed, there are much broader implications ranging from enhancing problem-solving skills, memory, personality and values, depending on the choice of the second language.

Herein lies the importance of cultural values that we tend to dismiss. When humility is more valued than aggressiveness for example, those who master languages associated with the latter tend to be more arrogant.

The New Scientist cited the case of Spanish and English, where the former is deemed to be more humble of the two.

Given this exciting emerging context, the lesson is clear especially for those who insist on being monolinguals.

Far from just gaining extrinsic benefits (such as employment), being bilingual also offers a host of intrinsic benefits to the learning capacity of an individual.

Armed with this knowledge, there is an urgent need to revisit the deeper intentions of nation-building embedded in the Razak, Rahman and Hussein Onn Reports.

– The writer is the vice-chancellor of Albukhary International University