By Terrence Voon
Despite coming from a Chinese-speaking family, Joo Jia Le always found the language boring and repetitive.
It did not help that his primary school Chinese education consisted mainly of rote exercises like ting xie (spelling) and mo xie (memorisation of passages) - methods which turned him off the subject.
But his mother tongue finally came alive when he joined Jurongville Secondary, where his teachers used videos, games and humour to illustrate Chinese phrases.
'Even though we're having fun, everything we did was linked back to a Chinese character or idiom,' said the 17-year-old, who is now in Secondary 5. 'I'm more of a visual person, so it really helped a lot.'
Jia Le's story is not unique.
A new breed of Chinese teachers are now using every tool at their disposal to win over students from an increasingly English-centric society.
Rote memorisation and repetitive teaching methods are being toned down in favour of blogs, pop music and even movie screenings in a bid to pique students' interest.
The Ministry of Education told The Sunday Times that its policy is to encourage every Singaporean student to study his mother tongue for as long as possible and at a level he is capable of achieving.
How teaching of Chinese has evolved
1960s: Bilingual policy is implemented in schools, with focus on character-writing and dictation for the Chinese language.
1980s: Sentence structure and grammar take centre-stage. Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools are introduced for students to learn both English and Chinese as first languages.
1991: Greater emphasis on comprehension, reading and listening, as recommended by a government review committee.
1999: A simplified Chinese Language B syllabus is introduced for weaker students.
2004: Mother tongue requirements for admission into local universities relaxed. Chinese language learning is now tailored according to the students' home language backgrounds and learning abilities.
'We have since moved from a 'one-size-fits-all' approach in our curriculum and teaching approaches, to a more customised approach which recognises the different abilities and home language backgrounds of our students,' said a spokesman.
Instructional resources - including reading materials, digi-tal games and online portals - have been developed towards this end. The ministry said
response from students and parents has been positive so far.
The spotlight was cast on Chinese-language teaching last week when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew admitted that Chinese lessons in the old days had been pitched at too difficult a level.
Speaking at the opening of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) last Tuesday, he also publicly urged Chinese teachers to make learning fun for children, and to focus on listening and conversational skills first rather than the reading and writing of Chinese characters.
'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.
The revolution has already begun in earnest in many schools. At Cedar Girls' Secondary, Chinese teacher Hou Liang uses every trick in the book to engage his students.
No two classes are the same - he organises charades for students to guess Chinese idioms, gets them to analyse lyrics from pop music by singers such as Stefanie Sun, and even plays video clips from Taiwanese variety shows.
'Getting them to memorise words in the old-fashioned way will just scare them off,' said the 35-year-old Shanghai native, who has been teaching in Singapore for the last eight years. 'What's important is not just exam results but also cultivating a lifetime interest and passion for Chinese.'
Ms Kong Hwee Ling, 38, from the School of the Arts has also taken an interactive approach, challenging her students to think and to express themselves freely in their mother tongue.
Paintings, videos and websites are shown in class, and students are asked to pen their thoughts and produce podcasts on diverse subjects such as Western art and traditional Chinese festivals.
Said the former River Valley High School and Raffles Girls' School teacher: 'Students nowadays love visuals and images, and these are the best ways to capture their imagination.'
Over at Tampines Primary School, the popular appeal of Chinese martial arts has been harnessed as a teaching tool.
Chinese teacher Dong Ya Ru, 40, has created a blog called 'Gongfu Master' for her pupils where they get to learn 'gongfu skills' which are actually language exercises.
MOE figures 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 five years ago and 10 per cent in 1982.
According to Dr Chin Chee Kuen, 53, executive director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL), these changing demographics will continue to shape the evolution of Chinese teaching in years to come.
'The focus will be on a more holistic approach that creates a link between the language and the students' daily lives,' he said.
'More emphasis will be placed on the learning process rather than just exam results. The use of information technology will play an even bigger role in all this.'
While there are teachers who support the need to be more creative in teaching the language, some veteran teachers insist that traditional methods should not be ditched entirely.
'Having a strong foundation is still very important,' said a 56-year-old secondary school teacher who did not want to be named. 'Traditional exercises like spelling and memorisation may be boring but they are still effective.'
If these tools of teaching are thrown out entirely, he added, Chinese education in Singapore risks being diluted.
While change is in the air, a paradigm shift in Chinese teaching may take some time yet.
Some teachers, especially the older ones, may require more help to adjust to the new status quo.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.