Sun, Nov 29, 2009
The Straits Times
Was Chinese wrongly taught for 30 years?

By Clarissa Oon & Kor Kian Beng

FOR Chinese Singaporeans who had struggled with their mother tongue in school, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's recent remarks that bilingual education had proceeded on the wrong assumptions for 30 years were a breath of fresh air.

One of those who felt vindicated was Mr Andrew Koh, 43, who studied at an English-stream mission school.

It was there where he developed 'a phobia of the Chinese language, no thanks to the rigid way it was taught', says Mr Koh. 'I am sure we all feel vindicated by MM Lee's acknowledgement and now know that it is not because we are intellectually inferior.'

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Back in the 1970s, Chinese was taught in much the same way to all students - whether they came from English-speaking backgrounds with little exposure to Mandarin, or lived and breathed the language in traditional Chinese-medium schools that still existed then.

This meant that Mr Koh and his schoolmates at St Andrew's Primary and Secondary schools had to memorise unfamiliar words and passages 'with lots of 'ting xie' (spelling tests) thrown in'.

'It was a torture and very pressurising as it was pure memory work with no context to learning the language,' recalls Mr Koh, a director and general manager at Canon Singapore.

In Mr Lee's view, the problem of how to teach Chinese as a second language was effectively fixed - somewhat - only in 2004, through a modular system customising the teaching of primary school Chinese to different language abilities.


Most of today's Chinese teachers are bilingual - compared to their Chinese-educated predecessors - and better able to engage their young charges. But the policy is still 'not completely right' and must be fine-tuned, Mr Lee said last week at the opening of a centre to upgrade Chinese-language teaching.

Hence, the newly launched Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) must explore ways to make learning Chinese fun for students, he said. This is because fewer children these days have a Mandarin-speaking home environment to fall back on. Official figures show that three out of five children entering Primary 1 this year come from English-speaking homes.

For Mr Koh, unimaginative teaching turned him off Chinese - though fortunately not for life. Five years ago, he took a Chinese refresher course at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce which 'opened his eyes to the rich historical heritage and beauty of the Chinese language'.

If only it had been taught differently when he was in school, says the man who barely scraped through his O-level Chinese examination.

Education as 'political football'

MUCH ink has been spilt in the newspapers, and many tears shed, over the last 40 years as policymakers, educators, parents and students grappled with the impact of bilingualism.

From independence in 1965, Singapore began aggressively pursuing a two- tongue education policy. The thinking was, and still is, that a command of English would give its economy a competitive edge in the region, as well as facilitate communication among the different races. This would be supplemented by the mother tongue to give each race cultural ballast.

The devil was in the details of implementation - especially as language and education were highly emotive subjects that became 'political football' among different interest groups, as Mr Lee noted in 1978 when he was prime minister.

On one side, there was the Mandarin- speaking community worried about declining Chinese language standards - particularly after the closure of Chinese-medium schools in the mid-1980s. Members of this group had their share of struggles in having to improve their English, and feared the Government was catering too much to the needs of English speakers.

On the other side of the debate were the English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans who felt not enough was being done to help their children improve in the Chinese language. Some in this group felt the language had been forced on them.

Mr Lee was to intervene many times, as PM, in this deeply polarising debate - as well as later, in the 2004 review of the Chinese-language curriculum.

What went wrong?

THE controversy over the bilingual policy started in the 1970s.

The Government began assigning greater weight to both first and second languages in examinations, and passing both became a requirement for advancement to pre-university and beyond. Many students had trouble coping with two languages, especially given the prevailing dialect-speaking home environment at the time. The failure rate was astounding.

From 1975 to 1977, more than 60 per cent of those who sat for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) or the O levels failed either English or Chinese, or both. The bilingual issue sparked many letters to the newspapers - from anguished parents detailing their children's difficulties in learning Chinese, as well as from defenders of the Chinese language.

One parent who criticised the policy was Mrs Pauline Tan, in her letter to The Straits Times in 1989. She said then it was the key reason behind her family's decision to migrate to Australia. She felt that her son was a victim of the boring way the Chinese language was taught then. She also argued that the policy was too harsh and inflexible, especially for students from schools that were traditionally much stronger in English.

There are no available figures on the number of Singaporeans who migrated because of their children's struggle with the language. Experienced Chinese teachers who have been teaching in English-dominant schools since the late 1970s say they did not encounter former students who migrated as a result of difficulties with the Chinese language.

A former Singaporean, who has worked as an immigration lawyer in Melbourne for the past eight years, says she has not met any Singaporean families with children who migrated there as a result of the bilingual policy.

She says: 'I do not think that the bilingual policy alone is a strong enough factor to make Singaporeans migrate. From what I have gathered from my Singaporean clients, the main reasons are cost of living and stressful environment.'

A good gauge of the number of Singaporean students struggling with Chinese at that time could perhaps be seen in the passing rate of the subject at PSLE level.

Madam Foo Siew Lin, a senior teacher at St Joseph's Institution Junior since 1975, says that in the 1980s, about half of the 260-plus pupils entering Primary 1 at the school each year would have difficulty with the Chinese language. During that period, about 35 per cent of the Primary 6 pupils managed to pass the subject at the PSLE, says Madam Foo. Now, it is above 90 per cent, although detractors argue that the higher percentage is a result of lower benchmarks in marking.

From the 1970s, the Government was already aware of the difficulties this particular group of children from English- speaking families had with learning Chinese, but did not tackle this problem until much later.

One reason was that they were still a minority in Singapore at that point. In 1982, only 10 per cent of the Primary 1 cohort came from English-speaking families, compared with 59 per cent this year.

Another factor was that all the Chinese teachers back then came from Chinese-educated backgrounds and knew no other way of teaching Chinese.

Mr Lee also acknowledged that his mistaken assumption then was that a child who was bright enough could master two languages. For that reason, Chinese lessons in the past were pitched at too difficult a level and 'successive generations of students paid a heavy price because of my ignorance'.

But not all students from English- speaking backgrounds were complaining.

Mr Edward Ong, 57, who went to Anglo-Chinese primary and secondary schools, was one of those who felt they had benefited from learning Chinese the hard way. He recalls how the lao shi (teacher) would make the class practise writing fan ti zi (traditional Chinese characters) instead of jian ti zi (simplified Chinese characters).

Says Mr Ong, a retired banker and headhunter: 'We had to repeat and recite after the teacher, over and over again. But it actually gave us a very sound foundation in the language. With certain things, you just have to grit your teeth and go through with it. It is the same with learning English, isn't it?'

Chinese teachers in English-dominant schools also defended the old way of teaching, saying that it had its merits in the early years. Says Madam Foo, in Mandarin: 'We can't say that the method back then was wrong. Most of the students we had then came from Mandarin- speaking families and had less trouble during lessons.'

Chinese teachers did not have the benefits of the computer, Internet and new media technologies widely available these days to make the lessons more fun, she notes. But now, she says, 'society has changed, with more students coming from English-speaking families'.

She adds: 'Students these days also need more visual and physical stimulus. So there is a greater need for teachers to make Chinese lessons more fun through games, cartoons and music.'

The remedies taken

AFTER the 1991 General Election - when four seats fell to the opposition - an attempt was made to raise Chinese-language standards. This was viewed partly as a way to appease the Mandarin-speaking community, many of whom were perceived to have voted for the opposition.

However, the Government backpedalled in the late 1990s, recognising that a growing number of students were coming from English-speaking homes and that their Chinese textbooks were too difficult for them.

To cater to differing language backgrounds, a 1999 review committee led by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, now PM, introduced the Chinese B curriculum for weaker students and slashed textbook content, while making it easier for more students with the aptitude to do Higher Chinese.

Linguistic ability and academic ability are two different things, MM Lee - who stepped down as PM in 1990 to become Senior Minister and then MM in 2004 - had realised by this point.

The B curriculum, however, proved unpopular, with many parents viewing it as a stigma if their children enrolled in it.

So in 2004, the current modular system for teaching Chinese in primary school was introduced. This gives children with little exposure to Chinese additional support, while allowing those with backgrounds or ability in Chinese to go further.

In recent years, the bilingualism debate has been tempered by geopolitical realities. The rise of China has melted away much of the resistance of those from English-speaking backgrounds towards learning Chinese, now that they see its economic value.

This can be seen in the rising number of students opting to do Higher Chinese. Some 27 per cent of O-level candidates took Higher Chinese last year, compared with 19 per cent two years ago.

In the last 10 years, it appears that students have had less trouble with the Chinese language compared to their predecessors in the English-dominant schools of the 1970s and 1980s.

The pass rate for Chinese, whether at PSLE, O levels or A levels, has hovered around 95 per cent or better in the last 10 years, on a par with the English pass rate.

However, there is still a small group of about one in 10 Primary 6 pupils who are above average in other subjects, but do badly in Chinese. These students are in the top 30 per cent for English, Mathematics and Science, but in the bottom 10 per cent for Chinese.

Going forward, Chinese-language educators say the challenge is to stimulate the interest of weaker students, while not compromising standards for those with an aptitude for the Chinese language.

The future: Using English to teach Chinese?

THE modular approach gives Chinese teachers leeway to use interactive teaching methods. Drama and IT resources are commonly used in Chinese classes. The system also places more emphasis on oral communication and reading, compared to writing, for primary school pupils.

MM Lee believes schools should take a step further in reaching out to students from English-speaking families - by using English to teach Chinese.

A task force will make proposals soon on how this group of children can be taught the language, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Sunday.

Several primary schools, most of which have traditionally been stronger in English, have used this bilingual approach to teach Chinese since 2002, with some success. One of them is Anglo-Chinese School (Junior).

Madam Lye Choon Hwan, 42, who heads the school's Chinese language department, says the bilingual approach is useful in the school for weaker pupils, especially those from English-speaking families who just cannot catch up with the lessons. About 10 per cent of the 270 pupils entering Primary 1 at the school each year are in this category, she says.

'English is used as a scaffolding to help my pupils understand concepts and clear up any misinterpretations,' she adds. 'It also melts down the psychological barrier of my pupils who have resistance to learning Chinese as they found it hard and incomprehensible.'

But, like her, educators stress that English must be used very selectively in Chinese classes, or it could become a crutch preventing students from effectively learning Chinese. Says Mrs Joanne Ng, 33, head of the Chinese department at St Andrews' School Junior: 'We do not use English unnecessarily but for select situations, like to explain complex words that students do not understand.'

SCCL's executive director Chin Chee Kuen encourages more young parents, who are the products of a bilingual education system, to use Mandarin more often with their children instead of English.

'Before the age of six is the best time for a child to learn a language. Parents could help set a foundation for him in Chinese, so that it will be easier to build on this foundation when he enters school,' says Dr Chin.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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