By Leow Si Wan
IT IS not just the usual suspects, such as mission schools, that face difficulties in teaching the Chinese language because their students come mostly from English-speaking homes.
Several Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools and schools affiliated to Chinese associations - the bedrock of Chinese learning here - said they, too, face similar challenges these days.
At Nanyang Primary School, for instance, about 80 per cent of Primary 1 pupils this year come from predominantly English-speaking families.
Said school principal Lee Hui Feng: 'We crossed the 70 per cent mark about two to four years ago. It has been 72, 73 per cent and, this year, it has gone up.'
Kong Hwa School, a SAP school, and Nan Chiau Primary School, a school affiliated to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, are seeing the same trend.
There are 15 SAP primary schools here, with three under the Hokkien Huay Kuan.
In six years - comparing its current Primary 6 and Primary 1 cohorts - the percentage of pupils from English-speaking homes in Nan Chiau has gone up from around 40 per cent to 60 per cent.
Students from English-speaking homes form more than half the Primary 1 cohort at Kong Hwa, a number that has doubled over the past three years.
SAP schools, which emphasise Chinese language and culture, were first established in 1979. Hokkien Huay Kuan schools also seek to preserve and promote Chinese language and culture.
According to the Ministry of Education (MOE), 60 per cent of last year's Primary 1 pupils speak English at home. That number has gone up because parents are better educated and English has long been the language of instruction, said principals.
As a result, these schools are seeing more pupils struggling with Chinese.
The head of department for Chinese language at Kong Hwa, Mr Kuah Yi Piao, said: 'There are pupils who respond in English when asked questions in Mandarin, or end up using English during discussions in Chinese class.'
As to whether these schools will get one more Chinese teacher, following Wednesday's Committee of Supply debate which revealed that an extra Chinese teacher will be provided to all schools with a high concentration of English-speaking pupils, the MOE said it is in the midst of finalising details.
In the meantime, schools are working harder to engage their pupils.
At Nan Chiau, familiar technology helps to keep the Chinese language current. In a pilot project started last year, pupils in two Primary 5 classes were each given a smartphone with a database of comics and stories about Chinese idioms. Pupils take pictures of daily life and use the idioms to describe them.
Nanyang has engaged a language facilitator to conduct enrichment lessons in speech and drama and poetry recital.
At Kong Hwa, pupils learn how the Chinese language is linked to daily life and culture by going on excursions to tea houses, studying Chinese classics and trying their hand at translating movie titles and road signs.
The children with high ability in the language - about 10 per cent to 30 per cent of each cohort - get extra enrichment programmes and immersion trips.
Nan Chiau Primary 5 pupil Kelly Chia, who speaks English at home, said of her school's programme: 'We use comics and the camera to learn proverbs, so it is a lot more fun and interesting.'
Mrs Cheong Y.L, a 41-year-old educator whose daughter is at Kong Hwa and who speaks Mandarin at home, feels it is important that her daughter knows the language well. She said: 'Chinese is important because being fluent in one language is not enough.
'I am happy to see the school trying to keep it relevant by using technology to complement classroom teaching.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.