By Clarissa Oon & Cai Haoxiang
CHINESE language teachers should pull out all the stops to make learning the mother tongue fun for children, a rising number of whom are not speaking it at home, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said last night.
They should also teach listening and conversation skills first, rather than the reading and writing of Chinese characters which could potentially turn off young Chinese Singaporeans from the language, he added.
Reflecting on some 40 years of bilingual education in an off-the-cuff speech at the official opening of a Chinese language centre, he said Singapore's policy on the learning of Chinese started on the wrong footing because he believed in the past that it was possible to master two languages equally well.
As a result, Chinese lessons in the old days were pitched at too difficult a level and 'successive generations of students paid a heavy price because of my ignorance', he said.
He was addressing an audience of 250 policymakers, academics and educators at the opening of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL).
'I wasn't helped by Ministry of Education (MOE) officials. They were basically two groups of people, one English-speaking, the other Chinese-teaching,' he quipped.
Chinese teachers in the 1960s and 1970s were Chinese-educated purists who emphasised character-writing and dictation in the teaching of Chinese as a second language, which 'turned the students off completely', he recalled.
As Prime Minister, he intervened successively over the years to fine-tune Singapore's bilingual policy.
Eventually, MOE decided in 2004 to teach Mandarin through a modular system, allowing each child to go at his own pace.
The policy, he acknowledged with a laugh, is still 'not completely right but I will get it right if I live long enough'.
The SCCL, located at Ghim Moh Road, was set up by the MOE in February to train existing Chinese-language teachers and research how best to teach Chinese in a bilingual environment.
At its official opening last night, it signed agreements with four partner institutions to conduct joint research and offer degree and training programmes for teachers. Its partners are the Media Development Authority, SIM University, the University of Hong Kong and NTUC's Seed Institute.
Bilingualism has become a major concern of MM Lee's in recent years, amid fears that the Chinese language is losing currency. Latest MOE data show that 59 per cent of the Primary 1 cohort this year came from families that speak mainly English at home, compared to 49 per cent just five years ago and 10 per cent in 1982.
Earlier this month, in an interview carried in the People's Action Party magazine Petir, he cited bilingualism as the most difficult policy he had to implement, and the one which should have been done differently from the start.
This was because he did not realise that a child's intelligence and language ability were two different things, something which his daughter, a neurologist, confirmed late in his life.
Yesterday, he urged parents and educators not just to expose children to the Chinese language from a young age, but also to stimulate the child's interest in the language, beyond just 'passing exams'.
'I want to get this message into the heads of the younger generation of teachers: Use IT, use drama, use every method to capture the interest of children,' he said.
One example of how the SCCL is making the learning of Chinese fun is through mobile phone technology. This was shown at a conference yesterday afternoon by one of the centre's lecturers.
Dr Wong Lung Hsiang directed an experiment in which students used camera phones to take photos of anything they wanted to outside of class. They then uploaded their pictures onto the Internet, incorporating a Chinese idiom into the picture caption.
Their Chinese teacher then guided the class in a discussion on the accurate use of those idioms, which Dr Wong said works better than the direct correction of mistakes.
The conference on how to teach Chinese in an interesting and effective way was attended by more than 400 teachers and researchers from here and abroad.
The three-day conference ends tomorrow.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.