Teaching multilingualism

Stakeholders: Balanced approach needed if third language is to be introduced in schools

WITH globalisation and an increasingly competitive job market, young talents must be multilingual if they are to thrive.

While introducing a third language in schools can make our future graduates more marketable, the idea has sparked debate among parents and academics who say Malaysian students are still grappling to master both Bahasa Melayu (BM) and English.

Stakeholders say Puteri Wangsa assemblyman Amira Aisya Abd Aziz’s recent proposal that the Johor state government introduce a third language in schools, either after school hours, during weekends or through weekend camps, raises critical questions about its feasibility and impact on students’ proficiency in BM and English, both within the state and if implemented nationwide.

During her debate speech at the state assembly in Kota Iskandar, Johor, on May 13, Amira Aisya noted that while only BM and English are compulsory language subjects in schools nationwide, certain fully residential schools require students to learn a third language such as Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish or Arabic.

“I believe it is the government’s responsibility to give them the platform to learn,” she added.

Noor AzimahNoor Azimah

Teachers, said Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, would face challenges in making the learning of a third language enjoyable and immersive.

“Even between BM and the English language, teachers struggle,” she said.

Students, on the other hand, have a high propensity to learn any language the younger they are, she offered.

“As they learn each new language, their understanding of all languages improves, making further learning simpler and allowing for greater language expansion.

“It all boils down to teachers making language learning fun,” she said, adding that once the foundation is set firmly, students can learn at their own pace.

She emphasised that effective planning is crucial and teachers must be motivated to ensure their students succeed.

“Education should be equal and fair for everyone, not just those in residential schools. Every student is equally important, regardless of the type of school they attend,” she said.

Universiti Malaya Faculty of Languages and Linguistics dean Prof Dr Surinderpal Kaur Chanan Singh said although there are compelling cognitive, academic and career advantages to introducing a third language, it is not without its disadvantages.

“One of the primary concerns is the potential increase in cognitive load on students. Balancing the demands of learning a third language alongside other subjects can lead to stress and may adversely affect performance in core subjects such as BM and English.

Prof SurinderpalProf Surinderpal

“It is essential to consider the mental well-being of students and ensure that the educational burden does not become overwhelming,” she said.

She added that when students learn multiple languages simultaneously, there is a risk of language interference, where elements of the third language might confuse or overlap with the students’ existing knowledge of BM and English.

“This can be especially pronounced if the languages are not taught in a systematic and structured manner,” she said.

Despite these concerns, Surinderpal concurred that there are benefits to introducing a third language, particularly in enhancing cognitive abilities.

“Research has consistently shown that learning multiple languages can improve problem-solving skills, memory, and multitasking abilities.

“These cognitive enhancements are not only beneficial in the context of language learning but also translate to better performance in other academic areas,” she said.

However, she said the most important factor to consider is ensuring that the third language is seamlessly integrated into the existing curriculum without compromising the quality of education.

This includes the availability of qualified teachers, appropriate teaching materials, and adequate time for all subjects.

“Since the school day is limited, adding a third language requires finding extra time for its lessons.

“BM, being the national language, and English, as a global lingua franca, both require substantial time and effort to master.

“A well-thought-out approach, with adequate support and resources, is essential to maximise the benefits of learning a third language while maintaining proficiency in BM and English,” she said.

Better planning and resources

Weighing in, Prof Dr Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan Abdullah from the Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Educational Studies said introducing a third language early in primary education can significantly benefit a child’s development and later social standing, as long as it is carefully planned and implemented in the curriculum to align with theories of language acquisition and overall language development.

Prof Muhammad KamarulProf Muhammad Kamarul

“Learning a third language may put pressure on students’ learning, but the goal should be to acquire this additional language with a specific purpose, rather than solely to score in exams,” he said, adding that the approach to learning a third language should be fun, meaningful, contextualised and constructive.

He asserted that in introducing a third language in Malaysian schools, it is important to have creative and meaningful teaching, an interactive and engaging syllabus that is not exam-focused, and supportive school systems.

National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Fouzi Singon said introducing a third language could potentially be a good step, and parents might welcome it, especially if the language belongs to a major ethnic group with commercial value.

However, he pointed out that the initiative still needs to consider the allocation of resources and practicality.

“This is to avoid wastage of teaching staff if the number of students is less than 15 in urban or rural areas.

“Making students learn a third language as compulsory, however, may not be feasible. A more balanced strategy might involve offering a third language as an elective rather than a compulsory subject,” he said, adding that this approach would allow interested students to pursue additional language learning without imposing unnecessary stress on those who might struggle.


He also said third languages offered in boarding schools, such as Japanese, Spanish and Arabic do not need to be made compulsory subjects as they lack commercial value and likely have no local demand.

Prof Surinderpal added that the resources and training teachers would need to effectively teach a third language include training in the pedagogy of language teaching, which encompasses methodologies specific to multilingual education.

“Access to high-quality teaching materials, including textbooks, digital resources and interactive language learning tools, is crucial.

“Schools have to provide support systems, such as language labs and extracurricular language clubs, to reinforce language learning outside the classroom,” she said.

Agreeing, Noor Azimah said teachers have to be certified to teach the language; therefore the training must be of quality.

“There must be continuity, sustainability and the desire to achieve target student outcomes,” she said, adding that responsibility and accountability for any failure that arises should also be a teacher’s priority.

On fitting a third language into the timetable, she proposed maintaining the minimum number of periods for religious and moral studies within the timetable and moving any additional periods to after school, making them optional.

“Such a move will make national schools more attractive to parents. And last but not least, like learning any language, it is all about practice,” she said.

‘More practical as an elective’

"There are potential benefits to making a third language mandatory in schools, although careful consideration is needed to address the challenges.

Proficiency in a third language can open up more opportunities for students in terms of higher education and career advancement.

Despite these advantages, it is important to note the potential impact on students’ proficiency in BM and English, such as increased academic pressure and resource allocation.

It might be more practical to offer the third language as an elective rather than a compulsory subject, allowing students with genuine interest and aptitude to pursue it." - Alya Mohd Haidafitri, 18

" As a student who has grown up mastering both English and BM, I believe that introducing a third language as a mandatory subject in schools might not be the best initiative.

Not all students have an interest in or capacity for learning languages. Making them learn a third language could lead to disengagement and lack of motivation.

It’s important to consider that language acquisition is not uniform across all students; some may find it challenging and demotivating, which can negatively impact their overall academic performance.

Mastering two languages already requires a large amount of time and effort; introducing a third language could dilute the focus on BM and English." - Sharmilah Rukesh Kumar, 16

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