By Clarissa Oon, Political Correspondent
EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Chua Ying Xuan is totally engrossed in the exploits of a little turtle going to school, narrated on a Mandarin CD-ROM during a Chinese class.
Outside of the classroom, however, the bright Primary 2 pupil is the kind of young Singaporean that worries policymakers and Chinese teachers.
Why? Because, despite going through a so-called bilingual education system, the Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary pupil speaks mostly English to her parents, grandparents and friends, punctuated with the odd Mandarin phrase.
Half of her peers come from predominantly English-speaking homes, compared to one in five entering primary school 20 years ago.
It is against this backdrop of declining Chinese-language standards that the Government has set up a new centre for Chinese teaching, aimed at nudging the likes of Ying Xuan towards a lifelong interest in the language.
However, educators would also like the centre to look into the lack of a reading habit and poor writing skills among students, as well as raising the language proficiency of Chinese teachers.
CURRENTLY, Chinese is just a subject in school for Ying Xuan, who dreads having to memorise Chinese characters for tests despite doing well enough to be one of the better pupils for her level at school.
She finds the subject 'fun' only when her school uses computer animation to make the language come alive for her tech-savvy generation.
Who could blame her? Her engineer father and polytechnic lecturer mother are the English-speaking products of the bilingual system, which took root in the 1970s and uses English to teach all subjects except the mother tongue.
Chinese-medium schools, once influential in the Chinese community, had disappeared by the mid-1980s as English became increasingly entrenched as the language of administration in multi-racial Singapore.
Think in English, then translate
'UPHILL task' is the phrase that pops up most often in Insight's interviews with Chinese teachers, as they describe the challenges of their job in a changing linguistic landscape.
'The greater environment is against us, in the sense that students are not living in an 'organic' Mandarin-speaking environment. Teachers have done well in keeping the flames alive, but the general drop in standards is unavoidable,' says Anglican High School Chinese teacher Chua Sok Koon, 32.
As most students speak English or English mixed with Mandarin at home, they tend to have difficulty recognising Chinese characters or conversing in Mandarin, says Madam Wong Li Peng, 31. She is head of the Chinese department at Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Primary School.
'Very often, they tend to think in English and then translate their thinking and thoughts into Chinese. This often results in sentences with inappropriate structure or expression,' she adds.
Another obstacle is younger teachers, who like their pupils, come from the same bilingual environment and so are not as steeped in the language as their predecessors from the Chinese-medium schools.
Many of these older teachers have retired. Of the current 4,000 Chinese teachers, two out of five did not do a degree in Chinese at university. This means they had less exposure to Chinese literature and history.
It may have been unavoidable but, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned last Saturday, Singapore should guard against swinging to the extreme of becoming an English-only society.
Not being able to function effectively in their mother tongue would put Chinese Singaporeans at an economic disadvantage with the rise of China, Mr Lee said when he announced the setting up of a Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) by the middle of next year.
They would also lose touch with their cultural heritage and this could weaken identity and nationhood, he added.
The centre, funded by the Ministry of Education (MOE), will start recruiting staff and faculty from the end of this year. It aims to upgrade the professional skills of 1,000 Chinese teachers here, or one in four, in its first year, and to reach out to the rest by 2014.
What will distinguish the SCCL from similar centres in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong is that it will address the challenges of teaching Chinese as a second language, says its executive director Chin Chee Kuen.
After all, within one Singapore school, there can be sharp disparities in language ability, depending on how much Mandarin a student speaks at home. Dr Chin knows this from more than 20 years of experience in the teaching profession.
When he was head of the mother tongue department in a secondary school about 15 years ago, he did experiments to help his Secondary 4 and 5 Normal stream students. He regrouped them into different classes according to their command of the Chinese language.
After two years of tailoring the curriculum to the needs of each class, more than half of the weak students got a pass in Chinese, when 'in the past this group had almost no hope of passing', he says.
Now an assistant professor with the National Institute of Education (NIE), Dr Chin wants the SCCL to offer 'a more systematic approach' to school-based teaching experiments.
The aim is to develop 'an effective teaching framework which enables students from different language backgrounds to achieve their personal best'.
Such an approach is in line with the MOE's current modular curriculum for primary school Chinese classes, where pupils take modules aimed at bridging differences in language standards.
Resistance to reading and writing
THE SCCL's deputy executive director, Dr Tan Chee Lay, is optimistic that bilingual Chinese Singaporeans will speak more Mandarin with their children, now that the language is growing in strategic and economic importance.
Already, the trend of usage, he says, has shifted from that of more students speaking only one language at home - either English or Mandarin - to more students speaking a mix of both.
MOE figures also show the pass rate for Chinese students in their mother tongue is high, at more than or around 95 per cent at PSLE, O and A levels. The data for 1997 to 2006 shows only slight fluctuations during the 10-year period.
The MOE does not release figures on the proportion who scored distinctions.
Teachers, however, do not set great store by examination results, saying they are not quite a good gauge of standards as distinctions scored may be relative to the standards of other students.
One thing the SCCL could promote is a reading habit among students, as this is lacking even among those from Mandarin-speaking homes, says Miss Ho Boon Sim, 40.
She teaches Chinese at Shuqun Primary in Jurong West, a neighbourhood school where half the pupils speak the language at home. Yet their command of it is not so good, she says.
They are 'capable only of uttering short phrases and are weak in vocabulary content'. She attributes it to a lack of support for reading Chinese storybooks as not many parents take their children to the library or purchase good storybooks for them.
Another dragon for the SCCL to slay is the inadequate writing skills among students, given the greater emphasis on speaking and reading in the current primary school curriculum.
'What today's students are most scared of is writing compositions,' says Mr Hoo Boon Piang, 54, a senior Chinese teacher at Pasir Ris Secondary School.
Miss Chua thinks the centre should develop a structured way of teaching writing in class.
Last but not least, teachers say the SCCL has a major role to play in upgrading their own proficiency in the language.
The centre could offer short courses in Chinese literature and history for younger teachers, suggests Mr Lim Chin Nam, 57, a master teacher in Chinese at Raffles Girls' Secondary School.
Teachers are not the only ones holding the future of the Chinese language in their hands, says Dr Chin.
Parents have a crucial role to play as well by speaking Mandarin at home to help children build a good foundation in the language before entering school.
Forget English, he urges parents.
'English has become the dominant language of the society (and) children have ample opportunities to learn the language. Hence, Chinese parents should try their best to use Mandarin with their children at home.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 13, 2008.
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