Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Mother of All Tongues

The current debate on our bi-lingual policy is especially significant to me. I was one of those who struggled with second language. I was the only one in my family to take Mandarin. It was my late father’s decision that I do so.

It was a monumental struggle. As I went higher up the educational ladder, my scores got lower. As a result of my Mandarin, I could not get into my first choice secondary school (we were given only two choices back then), and I just barely made it to JC, having secured the minimum D7 grade. My difficulties finally caught up with me, and I failed at A – Levels despite three attempts. As a result, I did penance for one month at “Chinese Camp” at NUS, which turned out to be my most enjoyable and effective experience of learning Mandarin.

So I can identify with the many letters and postings from those who speak of the trauma they went through in school.

But the recent comments have not all been one-sided. A number of people have written to accuse people like me of having a bad attitude when it comes to learning Mandarin (some truth there) and hope that the Government will not lower standards. Others say that the problem lies with the way it is taught.

All these are valid points. But I would like to ask a more fundamental question: should learning a second language be made compulsory?

When I was younger, I thought that there were two main reasons for our bi-lingual policy. First, was political. In light of the make-up of early Singapore, it would not have been easy or well received to get rid of the mother tongue. Second, was cultural - a person needed to learn his mother tongue in order to better appreciate his culture and roots. Over time, as China became more powerful, a third reason emerged - economics. Learning Mandarin would help us ride the new tide from China. The recent debate revealed a fourth reason. It would appear that ability in second language was used as a proxy for intelligence. This last one has thankfully now been debunked.

In order to work out what we need to do, we need to first agree on our motive.

If the cultural reason remains, there is no reason why second language should be compulsory beyond a certain level (say, Sec 2) or why a pass is necessary for advancement.

If it is economic, there is no need to make it compulsory – people will willingly study the language to get an edge. We are witnessing this all around the world. In the US and Europe, thousands are willingly learning Mandarin because they see it as giving them an advantage. There is no reason to believe that most (or at least a good number) of Singapore students will think differently. No one will be forced to take it, and there will be no trauma associated with learning it. More importantly, there does not need to be any lowering of standards or to create exceptions for those who cannot cope. The Government can also encourage student to take second language eg. by making it a prerequisite for scholarships.

Those who do not take it must accept the disadvantages, which they may well be prepared to accept. Not everyone is going to work or deal with the Chinese or Indians. We make the same fundamental choices when we opt to study the sciences or the arts, or what courses to pursue in the polytechnic or university. Why should second language be any different?

We need to recognise that we are dealing with life-changing issues. I do not know what would have happened to me if I had not made it to JC. There is a good chance I would be doing something completely different today. Others have not been so lucky. It is plainly wrong and illogical to deny a bright student advancement, or to disadvantage him, simply because of a weakness in second language. The sooner we pry this albatross from our necks the better.


  1. I think that the government of a city-state (Singapore, along with Monaco and Vatican City, is one of those rare things) has a responsibility to make such provision available. I mean that bilingualism should be built in, but like in the IB system, one should be allowed to choose one's second language and at what level (literary/elite, co-functional, beginner etc) one studies it. A spare language is always a good thing, and learning it is a useful experience if done right.

    I am struck by our similarities. I too did badly and failed my AO Chinese even though I took it three times in JC. Heh.

  2. should a student be prevented from going to university if he fails his english/maths/chemistry/physics/biology/history/literature/etc?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. other fundamental questions you can ask:

    should learning a maths/science/humanities subject be made compulsory?

    after all, not everyone would be in a career which would need mathematics/scientific/humanities knowledge, just as not everyone are going to work or deal with the chinese or indians.

  5. Hi Hri,

    I notice that the sub-header of your blog includes the word "feedbacks".

    FYI, I believe the word can only be used in the singular i.e. "feedback".


  6. Thanks for the comments.

    I agree with Trebuchet that having a spare language is a good thing. Those who do well in it will benefit. The issue is to what extent it should disadvantage those who do not do well, and whether it should act as a barrier to advancement.

    Which brings me to Little Eastern Heretic's question. For obvious reasons, every student should be given a good foundation in Maths and Science. But beyond a certain level, students should be given options depending on their interests. In our context, for example, you can opt to do the Humanities, and put less emphasis on Maths and Science. Whether you advance or not will then be determined by the choices you have made.

    Further, to have one subject pull down your overall score is one thing; to require that you achieve a minimum grade for a particular subject in order to advance is another. The latter was what I faced in O-Levels.

    Mr Udders, thanks! It escaped me.