THE high weighting given to mother tongue languages in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is now under review and could be reduced.
Education Minister Ng Eng Hen says his ministry is studying whether it is educationally sound for mother tongue language performance to count for so much at the Primary 6 level.
'The worry is whether it could exclude someone from progressing in his educational pathway even if he did well in other subjects,' said Dr Ng in an interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao.
Mother tongue languages now carry the same weight - 25 per cent - as the three other examinable subjects, English, mathematics and science. The combined aggregate score taken from the grades of the four subjects is used for entry into secondary school.
For years, parents have complained their children who excelled in all other subjects except mother tongue have lost out on a place in top secondary schools. Some have even ended up in the Normal stream for academically weaker pupils.
A mother tongue language review is now under way that will take into account the prior backgrounds of pupils and devise customised approaches. It will be completed by the end of the year.
Doing so will not blunt Singapore's bilingual edge but strengthen it, Dr Ng said, by engaging the majority of students with mother tongue lessons pitched at the correct level for them.
An earlier review of Chinese language conducted a few years ago has already led to some changes. From 2012, all Primary 1 pupils will be assessed on their Mandarin proficiency at the start of the school term so that their lessons can be customised to their abilities. Other measures include training teachers in using a bilingual approach to teach pupils from English-speaking homes.
Dr Ng said his ministry was making these changes to ensure that the way languages are taught meets the needs of different groups.
For those who want their children to study higher mother tongue to understand their culture, he stressed that there is - and always will be - a track for them to 'achieve maximum competency'. They can study mother tongue language at a higher level. The Special Assistance Plan schools is another avenue for those who excel in Chinese.
But he added there is a bigger group whose children are not as adept in languages, compared to mathematics and science. Their parents wish they did not have to spend so much time labouring over such an excessive mother tongue 'language load', but could instead focus on their strengths, be it in mathematics, science, sports or arts.
'But because the system as it is now requires him to do well in his mother tongue language to get into a good school, it limits his space,' he said.
He said that mother tongue language policy here has evolved over the years. In 1973, English and second language were both given double weighting - to encourage the study of English but at the same time assuage the different races here. Those who had good language skills excelled but some who could not cope left Singapore. Some went on to thrive in the education systems of other countries. 'It was Singapore's loss,' said Dr Ng.
In 1985, the policy was dropped after officials realised that such language requirements were too demanding. He said most parents today see the value in bilingualism, with the rise of China and India. 'But we require such high standards for PSLE that the child has to spend quite a lot of time doing it, sometimes to the exclusion of other things.'
Many parents equate mother tongue learning to running a sprint, where everyone runs as fast as they can and there are few winners. The rest are losers. 'Better to have a marathon system where you are encouraged to finish the race, but it need not be in such a short time,' said Dr Ng.
He noted that very few education systems worldwide place such a high language load at primary level. 'We have to ask ourselves why. What is the educational value of that?'
He said the ministry was now looking at how to accommodate the needs of the different groups to arrive at a 'golden mean' - where those who are proficient in mother tongue languages can be incentivised to go further, yet at the same time, not penalising those who lag behind.
But he assured parents that any decisions made by the Education Ministry have to be implemented with 'plenty of lead time' so that there will be no mid-stream changes for those preparing for the PSLE.