“Our citizens should be encouraged to be as bilingual as they can be, but not at the expense of acquiring relevant knowledge in other fields” (No One-Size-Fits-All Approach To Education, Miss Lee Wei Ling).
I read with tremendous interest Miss Lee Wei Ling’s commentary, “No One-Size-Fits-All Approach To Education” (May 16, 2010); and am pleased to concur that tweaks are desired in the way we approach linguistic education. Previously, proponents and opponents of the reduction in the weighting of the second language clashed and differed on a plethora of perspectives; yet a common understanding has been established: we need to re-think the learning-teaching of our languages in institutions.
Linguistic ability is a funny thing. Beyond the family backgrounds and supposed motivation to learn and persevere, intrinsic aptitude and flair counts for a lot when it comes to picking up a language. Some have to go through processes of prolonged memorisation and practice; whereas others find it effortless as they breeze through the written and oratorical aspects of the language. Therefore, the key now for the Ministry of Education (MOE) would be to cater to the needs of respective students based on their linguistic capabilities, and fine-tune pedagogies and programmes accordingly.
Bilingualism has been spot-on in its principles, but flawed in its execution. Right off the get-go, many parents and students do not agree with the policy of making Mandarin a compulsory second language – affectionately termed as their “mother tongue” – for those of Chinese descent. The same applies for Malay and Tamil as well. The impetus to master the English language remains extremely strong because it will continue to be the dominant language for the next few decades. Singaporean students find it more relevant because all of their other subjects are naturally communicated to them in English. There are other alternatives MOE can consider for the second language. Students can be offered choices in other global languages, such as French, German or Japanese; so as to cater to their varied abilities and interests.
Many have lamented that language standards in Singapore have fallen drastically over the years. In the midst of all the controversy and talk about reviewing the curriculum, the relevant authorities must be cognisant of the need to place equal emphasis on both oratorical and written skills in linguistic education.
Flexibility ultimately also means that if a student proves incapable of meeting the demands for learning two languages, then he or she should be given the chance to channel his or her focus and studies in another area. As long as basic competency has been established in the English language, why should we coerce and restrict their learning instead of allowing them to explore the wider fields in Science and the Humanities?
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.