Sun, Sep 20, 2009
The Straits Times
Making mother tongue fun: Use it, appreciate it

By Amelia Tan

SCHOOLS would have failed in their jobs if after 10 years of mother tongue language lessons, students are put off from actually using the language.

Their focus will need to shift from teaching students to pass a test, to getting them to use and appreciate the language, suggested Education Minister Ng Eng Hen at Ngee Ann Polytechnic yesterday, when he addressed teachers at their annual work plan seminar.

Related link:
» Teaching of languages to focus on oral skills

'Put simply, we want our students, after all the effort in learning mother tongue languages for 10 years or so, to use it and better still, read the newspapers and books in their mother tongue languages because they have cultivated an interest,' he said.

A change in teaching methods is needed to make this happen because students have limited exposure to their mother tongue languages at home, now that more homes use English.

Mother tongue lessons in primary schools take up about an hour a day, or 20 per cent, of curriculum time. At home, 70 per cent of those aged between seven and 14 spend an average of half an hour to two hours surfing Internet websites which are mostly in English.

Even the profile of mother tongue language teachers has evolved as more come from bilingual backgrounds. Currently, 70 per cent of local Chinese-language teachers learnt English as a first language, up from 27 per cent in 2000, noted Dr Ng.

He related a conversation with a parent to illustrate the impact of Singapore's evolving language environment. The 40-year-old man told Dr Ng that he grew up in a Mandarin-speaking environment and studied in a school where his own father was a Chinese-language teacher.

As a result, he continues using Mandarin daily in conversations with his wife and reads Chinese-language newspapers, books and the classics. But somehow his interest in the Chinese language has not been passed on to his five-year-old son, who does not like using the language.

The father suggested to Dr Ng that mother tongue languages be taught in a way that is both fun and relevant to daily life, in order to interest youngsters.

Dr Ng asked if such an approach would upset his son's grandfather. 'He replied honestly, that what mattered to him was that his son would learn to use the language and like it,' said Dr Ng.

Changes have already been made to the mother tongue curriculum with more focus on oral skills, reading and the use of infocomm technologies in lessons. There are also customised classes for weaker students.

These efforts have paid off. Dr Ng said 24 per cent of O-level mother tongue candidates last year sat for Higher Mother Tongue exams. This is up from 15 per cent in 2000.

Schools have also made mother tongue lessons fun. Chinese-language teachers at Victoria School are exploring the use of Facebook and Twitter to teach narrative and descriptive writing.

Banker Sharon Seow, 37, who has two daughters aged 12 and 10, said: 'I've seen my older daughter grow more interested in Chinese this year as she has a new teacher who uses games in lessons and makes the lessons fun. She looks forward to lessons now and is more willing to speak it.'

But more can be done, said Dr Ng, adding that while there was already a separate mother tongue curriculum for weaker students, their proficiency standards could be raised further.

He said results of a pilot programme started some years ago which used English to teach Chinese to weaker students have been promising, though it drew some protests from mother tongue speakers when it was launched. 'We must continue to be open and adopt effective and proven methods, and allow our teachers to use a range of methods based on the varied learning needs of our students,' said Dr Ng.

Blangah Rise Primary Chinese-language teacher Chan Pei Chui said that while teachers try their best to interest their students in their mother tongue languages, parents have to do their part too.

'Some pupils tell me their parents say that they sound funny when they speak Mandarin. So they don't want to speak it. To me, this is very sad. Parents can do simple things like watch Chinese TV shows with their children and use simple Chinese words at home. This will make a difference,' said Ms Chan.

Raising interest in Malay and Tamil


  • New curriculum will be implemented in all schools from Primary 1 to 5 from this year. It has greater focus on speaking and listening.
  • Possible Malay language resource centre in the future.
  • Ongoing efforts by schools to interest their students in Malay. For example, pupils at West View Primary download podcasts on current affairs from a Malay radio station and discuss them in class.


  • New curriculum will be implemented in all schools from Primary 1 to 5 from this year. It too has greater focus on speaking and listening.
  • The Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre has been set up as a Tamil language resource centre.
  • Ongoing efforts by school to interest students in Tamil. For example, Tamil language students at Crescent Girls' School record their speeches and upload them online so that their teachers and peers can listen to them and give feedback.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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