Tue, Dec 01, 2009
The Straits Times
No pain, no gain, so stop whining

By Mak Mun San

The year was 1983. I was about to turn 13, a chirpy Secondary 1 student in St Nicholas Girls' School. But as I stood in my classroom holding my report card, tears began falling furiously.

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I had just learnt that I had failed English in my June examination. I had aced the subject in my neighbourhood primary school and it came as a shock that my command of the language did not meet the high standards of my new school.

My self-esteem suffered a beating but I did not wallow in self-pity. Instead, I became a volunteer librarian at the National Library during that school break so that it was easier for me to read all the English books I could get my hands on.

I come from a Cantonese-speaking family where not a word of English or Mandarin is used, and I instinctively knew the only way I could improve my English was through copious amounts of reading.

That was also the way I'd developed a passion for the Chinese language, which I have always done well in.

When the final examinations came round that year, I managed a B3 for English.

I had no tuition; my English teacher did not change her method of teaching and neither did she make the syllabus easier to motivate me; my parents certainly did not emigrate for my sake. And I did not end up hating English. It was simply something I knew I had to - and wanted to - learn.

I went on to score A1 in English in the O levels.

Do I have an aptitude for languages? Probably. But I would never have gone far if I had lacked the right attitude.

This is why I feel a deep sense of alarm when I read letters in The Straits Times' Forum pages from people rejoicing about the proposed changes to the teaching of Chinese as a second language.

No one among them responded to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's calls to expose children to Chinese from a young age, or his sound advice to parents to speak Mandarin to their children at home.

I can understand why English-speaking Singaporeans feel vindicated by Mr Lee's remarks. But for someone who cares about the state of Chinese language in Singapore, I am disappointed that they failed to grasp the real message behind his words.

No one stood up and said: 'I'm monolingual despite the bilingual policy, but for my child's sake, I will learn Chinese again together with him.'

The real problem with Singapore's bilingual policy is this: There is no pro-Chinese environment here to speak of.

It is not good enough to tell a child 'Mandarin is cool' once a year during the Speak Mandarin Campaign, when here we are, criticising our dedicated Chinese teachers for doing exactly what they were told to do - teach Chinese and nurture a generation of bilingual and bicultural Singaporeans.

We can make our teachers literally perform a song and dance in class, but everything they teach will still fall on deaf ears if our children are conditioned to shun the language with our self-fulfilling prophecy that Chinese is 'too difficult'.

When I was pursuing my master's in translation in England, I took basic Japanese as an elective course. During the first lesson, my Japanese teacher told us: 'From now on, only Japanese will be used in this classroom and I'll not respond if you speak to me in English.'

As far as I know, none of my classmates - mainly Caucasians - ended up hating Japanese or used any English in class.

I am not against the use of some English to aid the teaching of Chinese at the elementary level. I did that myself in the mid-1990s when I taught at a private Chinese language centre. We taught children that 'apple' is 'pingguo' even though a picture accompanied by the corresponding Chinese characters would have done the job too.

Most Chinese teachers are pragmatic enough to know that this is the fastest way to reach out to a child who grows up speaking just English.

But there comes a time when such concessions will have to stop.

Schools are already allowing weaker students to use hanyu pinyin in place of Chinese characters in essays. If we overdo this move to make the learning of Chinese more palatable, the next generation of Singaporeans will end up with a dismal Chinese standard equivalent to the English level of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese, whose English is taught in Chinese.

Yes, learning Chinese may be tough for students who are brought up speaking English, but life is tough. Education is about acquiring knowledge through hard work and not about seeking easy answers.

Even as some parents express relief over a relaxed Chinese policy, I also know many who are concerned that Chinese lessons would become so simple that their children end up being able to speak only mangled Mandarin, and not read or write.

There is a Chinese proverb that says 'ning wei yu sui, bu wei wa quan' - it is better to be shattered pieces of jade than an unbroken piece of tile.

I do not wish to see Chinese being relegated to the status of an elective 'foreign' language one day.

But if that is the only way to keep it authentic and relevant, then perhaps the Government needs the political courage to come out and say: 'Let's forget about Chinese.'

Consider this: As many Chinese Singaporeans don't seem to see a practical use for Chinese and Mandarin beyond ordering food and doing business in China, just introduce a Business Mandarin 101 module for all students.

As for the full-blown Chinese syllabus, only those who perform well academically may learn it. Reward them with a through-train and/or fast-track education. Singapore gets to retain a group of truly bilingual people while the rest are spared the agony of learning a language they have no affinity with.

A fantasy scenario? Maybe, but it could well be one that serves the interests of all parties in the long run

The writer is an executive sub-editor with The Straits Times

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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