I get annoyed when parent associations insist that the Government needs to teach science and maths in English. They argue that because English is the lingua-franca of science, teaching science in English will help students learn more effectively without needing them to translate scientific terms from the vernacular. They add that teaching Science and Maths in English is a great way to improve the standard of English in schools.
It would great if those points were true, but they’re not.
English as the Lingua franca of Science?
Firstly, English isn’t the lingua-franca of Science. True, scientific journals are mainly in English and citations in most scientific literature point to English journals only, but shockingly primary and secondary school children don’t read the latest publications on the higgs-boson.
Instead, what children learn in school is so dated, that their initial publications were probably in Latin or Greek, with older text going back to Arabic, Chinese or even Indian origin. The most recent ‘findings’ your children learn in physics is Quantum Physics, which is roughly a hundred years old. Even then, they aren’t reading Einstein’s original paper on the Photoelectric effect, they’re reading a textbook that sufficiently distils and simplifies it for their consumption.
In fact, a vast majority of what children learn in Form 4 physics is derived from Principia, which is a collection of 3 books by Sir Isaac Newton who wrote them in Latin. The famous rhyme that “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” may sound nice in English, but doesn’t exist in the original text, simply because it wasn’t written in English. Going further back in history, the algebra you loved in high school derives its name from a notoriously hard to pronounce book titled “kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala” , the highlighted al-gabr means the reunion of broken parts, and forms the origin of the word Algebra. The book itself was written by al-khwarizmi (who is the most important mathematician you never heard of), and whose name is where we get the word Algorithm from, obviously he didn’t write his works in English.
Of course, I use these ancient examples a bit unfairly, but the fact is that your children are learning ancient science in schools. It’s not irrelevant, it’s that you have to build the foundation of scientific literacy from these ancient roots before you can tackle modern day science of the Higgs-Boson. You can’t fly before you learn how to walk.
The point is, that if these ancient text were translated into English at some point, why can’t we do the same to Bahasa, or Mandarin, or Tamil..or whatever language you want to. Isn’t it easier to translate and contextualize these century old ideas into a language the next generation is comfortable with, rather than hope they suddenly develop a love and understanding of a foreign language like English?
When you say Lingua-franca of science, in the context of what children actually learn in primary and secondary school–it isn’t English.