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The Straits Times

The Same Old Chinese / Mandarin Dilemma

There are pupils who respond in English when asked questions in Mandarin, or end up using English during discussions in Chinese class” (More SAP Pupils From English-Speaking Homes, Mr. Leow Si Wan).

I refer to the report, “More SAP Pupils From English-Speaking Homes” (March 13, 2010).

Sentiments and exchanges about the declining standards and disappearing interests in the Chinese language have been ongoing for the past decade, with the common recognition that heightened efforts and policies are desired to prevent Mandarin from dying out. Indeed, much has been done. Campaigns have been established to encourage Singaporeans to speak good Mandarin; and within the education system, amendments and tweaks have been made to standardised examinations and expectations. Most significantly, as highlighted by the article, the changing demographics and perpetual proliferation and reliance on the English language have encouraged many schools to adopt an assortment of new methodologies and pedagogies to engage students accordingly.

Undoubtedly, the usage of the Internet and various forms of technology are innovative alternatives to the traditional forms of rote-learning and monotonous lesson plans: a direct response to criticisms that previous batches of students had developed an unhealthy reliance on memory-based learning specifically for examinations. In recent years,  Chinese teachers have been creative in the usage of pop-music lyrics, movies, television series to sustain the interests of their students from young; in essence, to make learning interesting and enriching. Their efforts are definitely commendable.

But have such changes genuinely brought about increased interest and mastery in the Chinese language? Perhaps it is high time for the relevant ministries and agencies to comprehensively study the overall effectiveness of the diverse curriculum adopted by teachers, and evaluate whether tangible progress has indeed been made.

More importantly, with regard to the Higher Chinese examinations at the secondary or tertiary level, there should be a re-evaluation on the decision to exclude oral and listening components from the tests. Simply put, one’s ability in a language cannot be ascertained through a mere written examination – of which components are still reinforced through antiquated ways of rote-learning – and the inclusion of the aforementioned aspects would render the Chinese student’s mastery of his or her language a more wholesome one.

The importance of the Chinese language can never be exaggerated; and it certainly goes beyond the practicalities in its usage and engagement, particularly for students and entrepreneurs who aspire to make their mark in China. Culturally, historically, traditionally, pragmatically and realistically… Singaporeans have a special obligation to ensure that the policies of bilingualism will continue to empower individuals to overcome the stringent challenges of tomorrow.

A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


7 thoughts on “The Same Old Chinese / Mandarin Dilemma

  1. Actually the significance of Mandarin is way over-exaggerated. It is not a world language as English is. While mandarin will help you survive in China, taiwan and hk — English is crucial for your survival locally and internationally.

    The constant harping on the significance of mandarin seems a knee jerk reaction based on insecurity and to justify the inordinate amount of national resources to keep this language on continued life-support.

    Posted by Teh | March 19, 2010, 8:14 pm
    • Perhaps it is true, but one cannot deny the growing importance of mandarin in terms of practicality. You might be right when you comment that it seems like the enforcement of bilingualism (involving mandarin) has only be done blindly and for pure cultural and historical purposes (which might not be applicable in the first place).

      Regardless, if we want to continue teaching mandarin, let’s do it well instead of giving half-hearted attempts.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | March 19, 2010, 11:00 pm
  2. I feel that the one problem that affects proficiency in mandarin is the scope of the curriculum.

    It is difficult for me to have a conversation in mandarin, partly because despite a few years of higher chinese, I really don’t know the words to the simple things like ‘door-stopper’ or ‘keypad’. It was embarrassing in China to refer to ‘Watts’ when what I meant to say was ‘Volts’ at the computer shop.

    I suspect this is a problem for many others too. Even for the people who speak mandarin most of the time, I reckon that many end up using english nouns because they were never exposed to their Chinese equivalents. It doesn’t help that we are situated far away from the other predominantly mandarin speaking countries and so we either invent our own words, or pay close attention to what the others are calling these things and follow suit.

    So Mandarin may therefore be perceived by some as a language that has little relevance to them, since school has taught very little that would help them get around practically in the language, whereas the ‘horrors’ of memorising difficult expressions leave a more lasting legacy.

    Posted by HJ | March 20, 2010, 8:39 am
    • Agreed. It would be a logical move to shift to more practical forms of picking up the language in terms of the usage not just in literature and writing, but more functionally in speaking and exchanging as well. After all, the mastery of a language would never be complete without written and spoken proficiencies at a decent level; and for many Singaporeans, the latter has been severely deficient.

      The authorities must stop using “innovative teaching methods” as a smokescreen to hide more troubling problems in terms of the syllabus, curriculum and pedagogies. We want students who can use the language in the everyday context; not blockheads who can only ace examinations per se.

      Jin Yao

      Posted by guanyinmiao | March 20, 2010, 2:59 pm


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