Yawning Bread. 8 May 2010

Mother-tongue conservatives voice existential fears




As mentioned in a short-write post Weighting the second language in the Primary School Leaving Examination, the Education Minister recently hoisted a trail balloon, about adjusting the way the overall score is computed in the PSLE exam.

Unsurprisingly, a howl of objection has arisen from linguistic conservatives -- and here I use the word "conservatives" in a relatively clinical, non-judgemental way, to mean those who prefer to conserve the status quo.

There is a large segment of the population here whose cultural and linguistic orientation is primarily Chinese. In their eyes, there has been a steady retrenchment of their culture and language in Singapore, and they are highly sensitive to any move that would cause further erosion. It is an existential question to this group.

Most of the arguments from their side that I've seen in this debate are along these lines: Reducing the weightage would signal to students a decreased importance for Chinese -- and to this constituency, second language is reflexively equated with Chinese. Children will put less effort into it; standards will fall, and in time Chinese will be further marginalised in Singapore society.

Wei Meng Ho, in his letter to the Straits Times (published 6 May 2010) wrote: "Reducing weighting is analogous to a relegation of the subject's importance, both tangibly and psychologically. An immediate reaction will surely be a redistribution of resources by both pupils and schools. In the long term, I fear a situation where the standard of second language would decline irreversibly, emaciated by lack of passion, and disinterest."

Yeo Hwee Yann in her letter (also published in the Straits Times, 6 May 2010) wrote: "I dread to think of the far-reaching impact on the younger generation when they are given the green light to do away with anything they are not so good in."

Wei Meng Ho appears to discount the argument put out by educators (and many parents) that the bigger the stick, the more exam-oriented the subject is, the more children hate learning Chinese and the harder it is to inculcate a love and joy of learning it. Learning is best achieved when a child wants to learn -- surely a pedagogical truth -- but the do-or-die stress associated with tests and examinations produce the opposite motivation.

There is also the question of teaching methods. This is being addressed separately by the Education Ministry. For too long, Chinese has been taught to pupils as if that really is their mother tongue. For a great many, it is not. It was politicians' ideology that mandated the term "mother-tongue", not demographic reality. More than half of six- and seven-year-olds starting school come from homes where English or Singlish is the mother-tongue.

To teach Chinese to them would mean teaching it as a foreign language. Yet, the blindsidedness stemming from the ideological position that these foreign languages are "mother-tongues" to the children has meant a terrible mismatch between teaching methods and pupils' needs.

Add to that the pressure from examinations, and it is no wonder that Singapore has created this monster of a problem that has rumbled, unsolved, for decades.

As Barabara Chen wrote in her letter to the Straits Times, published 8 May 2010: "Every pupil I know requires private tuition in Chinese. At the Chinese tuition centre my children attend, there are even a few children whose parents are native Chinese speakers.Why do so many of us need help to teach our children Chinese?

Providing the answer, she said "our children have limited or no contact with Chinese in their living environment. There is a bias towards English in school, games, Internet activities and, with more than half of them, their families.... With such a language landscape, it is unrealistic to expect most children to achieve the same level of competency in Chinese as in English."

A good PSLE score (in which the second language has a 25 percent weightage) is important for getting to good secondary schools. It used to be also essential for getting a place in local universities, though my impression is that universities have at last become more flexible (could readers update me on this please?).

Knowing this, parents pile pressure onto their kids. Result: the kids hate Chinese even more. They still don't do well.

This is compounded by the proficiency standard expected. Predicated on the assumption that it is a mother-tongue to everybody, all children have been expected to attain the same high level. This has recently changed; the ministry has instituted a lower standard as an option, whose introduction also raised a hue and cry, and possibly as a result, the lower option has been only sparingly implemented. The vast majority of kids still labour under the higher standard expected. (Furthermore, how that lower standard factors into the overall PSLE score, I am not clear. Again, if any reader can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.)

But second language scores correlate poorly with a child's intelligence or academic prowess. So for years, otherwise bright students, who for whatever reason -- linguistic aptitude, home environment - aren't good in their second language have been shut out of good secondary schools and university places. But because they do well in other subjects, they get places in universities abroad, and then, very often, they don't return. Singapore has suffered a steady loss of talent as a result.

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The debate is not joined. The mother-tongue conservatives' arguments do not address this reality, except perhaps obliquely. They seem to ignore the fact that to many, Chinese is indeed a foreign language. They resist the introduction of a lower standard as an option, and they get very anxious, as we can see in the published letters, about anything that might signal a loss of equivalency with English.

Instead many of their arguments assume that (a) only racially Chinese kids are the ones learning Chinese and (b) since they are racially Chinese, it goes without question that their families feel the same way as they do, which is to place a very high value on feeling culturally Chinese. Where this leads to is particularly disturbing, an example of which can be seen in one letter in the Straits Times, discussed in the box at right.

Despite the point that the bigger the stick, the more counterproductive it is, the conservative side will simply not believe it. That's why the argument is not joined. It flies against their assumed model of human behaviour. For them -- and not coincidentally, it is one well-known trait of the conservative mindset -- great store is placed on authoritarian measures to shape behaviour. The flip side is a lack of faith in others' self-motivation or soft encouragement.

Instead, if the child isn't doing well, push harder -- seems to be the instinctive response. Learning, in their view, must necessarily be an effortful endeavour, with the stick not far away. Remove the stick, and people won't learn. This comes out, for example, in Wei Meng Ho's letter's last sentence: "Learn by overcoming barriers, not lowering them."

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Is Singapore a Chinese state?

The most disturbing letter to the press I saw was by Ng Siew Lay, published in the Straits Times on 7 May 2010. She wrote: "Only people with a strong sense of their own culture will be able to develop a sense of identity with their country."

Clearly, she saw Chinese -- the foregoing part of her letter talked about Chinese, not any other second language -- as the language for cultural transmission. That's fair enough -- if one is referring to Chinese culture. But what struck me was how she wrapped Singapore's national identity around Chinese culture... which is a very dangerous idea.


There is also a sense of victimhood that makes this issue so emotional. Many adults who grew up in Chinese-speaking homes had to struggle doubly hard to learn English. Without English, there was no chance of further education here. If we could make it, their thinking goes, why do we need to get soft towards kids from English-speaking homes struggling with Chinese?

More currently, there is another argument: Children from Chinese-speaking homes today may still be struggling with English. They rely on the 25-percent PSLE weightage given to their second language to make up for the relatively poorer score they obtain for English (also 25 percent), in order to assure themselves a place in a good secondary school. Any reduction in the weightage of the second language will disadvantage this group, who probably are the children of the adults who struggled to learn English as a foreign language a generation ago.

Indeed, this angle should not be ignored. As Singapore becomes more cosmopolitan, what with steady immigration from China and elsewhere, the issue should be framed wider. It shouldn't be treated as "What shall we do with the weightage of the second language?" but how to have a more flexible education system that caters to kids from different environments, with different aptitudes.

It is here that I fear we run up against an ingrained bias in favour of order and authoritarian methods, both among our bureaucrats and the mother-tongue conservatives. This bias produces a desire for uniformity of standards and one-size-fits-all solutions ("order"), rigid teaching methods and externally-enforced measurements (authoritarian styles).

It also produces a fetish for rankings and hierarchy: good schools and bad schools. Good scores and bad scores.

Why can't we imagine a testing regime that is merely designed to find out a child's palette of talents and skills, and then point them to secondary schools that are designed to cater to different abilities?

They may all teach the same basket of subjects, but each school tailors its teaching methods and expected standards to the kinds of pupils it seeks to attract and that it prides its reputation on. There may be schools for those stronger in science and mathematics but weaker in second language. Another school might cater to those stronger in Chinese than English. Or Malay than English. A third might nurture those with artistic talent. Or sports.

I know we have a sports school. I know we're opening an arts school. But why a single school? Why not have an education system where variety is the norm, not the exception. Where encouraging children to flourish where they can, and not force-feed them where they can't, is the governing ethos?

Yawning Bread 



What about non-Chinese kids learning Chinese?

Increasingly, there are children of mixed-race couples who are assigned Chinese as their second language. I can also foresee a time when non-Chinese parents choose Chinese as the second language for their children.

The present paradigm -- delusion, might be a better word -- that Chinese is for racially-Chinese kids from culturally and linguistically Chinese home environments is way off the mark.

This is not to say that such families do not exist. Indeed they do and are numerous, but they are no longer the archetype of Singapore families, let alone the sole type that this paradigm/delusion is based on.