SINGAPORE started 'completely wrong' in the teaching of the Chinese language, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew yesterday.
Speaking at the official opening of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, he admitted that teaching the language by enforcing rote learning was a mistake.
Mr Lee said: 'A language is first listened to, heard and then spoken. It's not read or written - that follows later. (But) we started the wrong way. We insisted on spelling and dictation (in Chinese).'
And the way to correct this was to get children interested in the language, regardless of their linguistic ability, he said, because, with interest in the language, they will have it for life.
He said that forcing students to just memorise without applying the language and to take examinations on the Chinese language, is wrong.
This is because the students would then just aim to pass Chinese in their exams and then forget about the language after that, Mr Lee said.
'Successive generations of students paid a heavy price because of my ignorance and my insistence on bilingualism,' he said.
'We had teachers who were teaching in completely Chinese schools and they did not know how to use any English to teach English-speaking children Chinese,' he said, adding that this turned children off completely and caused parents to waste much money and time on extra Chinese tuition for their kids.
Mr Lee said he had a wrong premise about learning languages, equating intelligence to language ability. But later, his daughter, neurologist Lee Wei Ling, told him that they were two different things.
So Mr Lee became determined to right his wrongs, which led to changes in how Chinese is taught in schools.
In 2005, the Ministry of Education (MOE) increased the weightage in the Primary School Leaving Examination of pupils' oral Mandarin over that of their ability to memorise, say, Chinese characters.
This followed the recommendation of a Chinese language review panel in 2004 to put more emphasis on speaking and listening.
Since 2007, the ministry also introduced a new Chinese language syllabus where Primary 1 to 5 pupils learn Chinese at their own pace by taking different learning modules based on their ability.
These changes aim to make learning Chinese easier, given the increase in the number of children from English-speaking families. An MOE survey found that nearly six in 10 Primary 1 pupils this year come from English-speaking families, up from nearly five in 10 in 2004.
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