By Lee Wei Ling
Recently, my father acknowledged that he made a mistake in deciding how Chinese should be taught in our schools.
I remember many years ago Mr Lim Kim San telling my father that if my brothers and I had not been able to cope with both Chinese and English, he would not have insisted that all ethnic Chinese students acquire an equal facility in both languages.
My first nine years of formal schooling were spent in Nanyang Girls' - five in its primary school (I had a double promotion) and four in its secondary. I had no difficulty learning Chinese and I did not object to tingxie or moxie.
In tingxie, the teacher would pronounce the words and the student would try to write them down. As far as I know, tingxie is still practised in our schools. Moxie requires one to write down an entire essay or poem from memory.
For every wrong character, one mark would be deducted; and for every wrong punctuation mark, half a mark. As many of the classical poems and essays exceeded 100 characters, one could end up with a negative score.
Those who know about moxie might be surprised to hear that I enjoyed memorising the classics, and I never got less than 90 marks for moxie. It was English spelling that I had problems with.
Since I had no difficulty with written Chinese, I blamed my problems with English spelling on the strange spelling rules of the language. It was only many years later that I discovered I was dyslexic in English. To this day, I sometimes cannot decide whether to use a 'd' or a 't', a 'v' or a 'z'. I have even more difficulty with vowels. Fortunately, my e-mail and word-processing programs have spell checkers.
I had two favourite places where I would memorise my Chinese text. One was a particular tree on the Istana grounds with branches suitable to sit and lean back on; the other was a ledge outside the Istana building where I could sit and lean against the wall.
Both locations gave me a good view of the Istana grounds - the trees, shrubs, grass and ponds. And when twilight blurred the view, I imagined I was looking down on a vast lake or gloomy landscape, as they were described in the poems I was memorising.
Of course, there was always the danger I might fall off the tree or ledge - a danger that served to keep me alert as I studied, and was more effective in doing so than caffeine.
I rather enjoyed memorising the Chinese classics. The exercise trained my mind, and in later years, when I had to remember many medical facts, I could do so without much difficulty. And over and above the mental training, I absorbed many moral values from the Chinese classics I memorised. Some of these values are so much a part of me now that I find it difficult not to live by them.
When Chinese-medium schools were phased out, the Chinese language curriculum changed. Chinese culture and moral values were no longer always reflected in the Chinese textbooks. I remember one of my nephews, now 21, protesting: 'What Chinese culture are we being taught when we read Hans Christian Andersen in Chinese?'
I agreed with him wholeheartedly. I am told that the textbooks have been changed since then. I can only hope they have been changed for the better.
I took two major Chinese examinations: Chinese as a first language in my Secondary 4 school-leaving examination in Nanyang Girls' High School; and then later, the GCE O-level Chinese as a second language paper when I was in pre-university at Raffles Institution (RI). I took the latter because all the others in my RI cohort had taken it in their O levels. I received distinctions in both instances.
Recently, while searching for my old certificates, I found an exercise book in which copies of my essays published in Chinese newspapers were neatly pasted.
I remember being paid for those essays. In those days, $10 was big money to me. It was my mother who had cut out the newspaper articles and neatly pasted them in an exercise book.
I reread these essays. Years of disuse of the Chinese language - except to speak to some of my patients - have greatly lowered my ability to write in Chinese. The change from the old Chinese script to the modern simplified one adds to my problem. I know I cannot write Chinese essays now of the same quality as the ones I wrote as a teenager.
I do not regret that my parents sent me to a Chinese-medium school up to Sec 4, nor do I consider all the time I spent memorising those classical essays and poems as wasted.
I learnt how to behave honourably like a junzi - a cultured, honourable person. Among all the subjects I studied in school, I slogged the hardest for Chinese, but that was time well spent.
However, I recognise that not everyone can cope with learning two languages at a high level - especially English and Chinese, which are such different languages. For many pupils from English-speaking homes, Chinese is more a foreign language than a mother tongue. Such pupils form a growing proportion of our Primary 1 cohort.
The everyday use of Chinese will also be transformed by the development of IT, which will make certain skills like writing less important.
Schools have to keep up with these trends and customise the teaching of the language to meet the needs of different groups of students.
Chinese should be taught in a way that students can understand, and for a purpose that they will find useful. They should also be tested in ways that are relevant to how they would use the language in real life.
In that way, we can ensure that as many Chinese Singaporeans as possible retain their interest in the language throughout their lives.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.