On Learning A Second Language

In Singapore, every child going to a public school studies English as a first language.
At the same time, he is required to learn a second language.
This was and remains a national policy, something started by our first Prime Minister almost 50 years ago.

In the beginning, the language policies were controversial and politically explosive.
The Malays and the Tamils feared marginalisation by the Chinese majority.
The Chinese pushed for pre-eminence of Chinese base education.
Mr Lee stayed the course and pushed for English as the first language in all public schools.
The rationale was that English as the language of commerce and the sciences would enable Singaporeans to connect with the international community.
It was a question of survival for an island state with no natural resources.
The value of learning the mother tongue according to Mr Lee was to maintain ethnic identity and traditional values.

Today, the situation has turned.

50 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that parents today would face so much angst over learning of the mother tongue.
English is now the most commonly spoken language on the island.
Even most of the illiterate aunties and uncles know a splattering of Singlish, or the local style of colloquial English.
Most children today I know don’t want to learn their mother tongue.

Learning our mother tongues can be really hard work, especially where Chinese is concerned.
Thousands of unique characters. Thousands of idioms made up of any number of combinations of unrelated characters.
There is only one way. You memorize and then regurgitate during the exams, then you kind of forget everything.
And looking at current Primary school curriculums, I know that learning Chinese has only gotten harder.

My K2 boy brought home his very first tingxie (Chinese Spelling) list.
Frankly, I was appalled because I was expecting 上,下, 左, 右.
But I guess those were too simple.
They would hardly prepare the kids for the demands of Primary school.

Do we really have to do this?
Do we have to make it so painful?
Do we have to test students on Chinese like all the other subjects?

Unlike English, Maths and Science which lay the foundation for higher level learning, you almost don’t have to read a single Chinese book or document after A’level or O’level unless you are taking Chinese as a subject in University.

If you stick to the original motivation for learning Chinese, add another motivation of learning Chinese for opening the windows of opportunities in China.
Or to be able to communicate with the older generation who can’t speak English.
Or with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from China.

Do we really need to set such high standards for Chinese for our schools where all subjects are taught in English.
Shouldn’t we be spending more time cultivating the children’s interest in the Chinese culture, the history, and the stories?

In discussing Chinese language education, Lee Kuan Yew writes :
‘The greatest value in the teaching and learning of Chinese is in the transmission of the norms
of social or moral behaviour. . . .
It would be a tragedy if we were to miss this and concentrate on second language proficiency nearly equal to the first language’

And it makes me wonder … Are we still teaching and learning our “mother tongues” for the purpose of protecting ethnic identity, a sense of “rootedness” and cultural values or has it became another avenue for standardized testing so that we could separate the wheat from the chaff?



  1. Susan says:

    That’s a list of words for ??words at K2? My daughter just got started on learning HYPY at the start of K2 and it’s faster than some schools so this is way advanced. I agree that Chinese is just one boring subject for kids if it’s down to pure memorization without appreciating the language. I sure am nervous at what my daughter has to learn when she enters primary one.

  2. Jac says:

    the list is to write the Chinese characters or HYPY? I think it’s like a p3 or p4 list. My boy is K1 this year. He recognizes chinese words but I doubt he can write them out.

    And yes I agree with you, they should make chinese learning more interesting and focus more on the culture rather then focusing on writing the Chinese word.

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