“Young Chinese Singaporeans may have moved away from their mother tongue to use more English, but a new study has found that these pre-schoolers still have a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary and competent oral skills when it comes to the Chinese language” (Singapore Kids “Using More English But Strong In Chinese”, Amelia Teng).
The study by a team from the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language (SCCL) – which found that “more than half of [Chinese Singaporean pre-schoolers] are still bilingual, although they use English more often with their peers and siblings” (ST, Jul. 11) – is useful progress in the assessment of language education and bilingualism in Singapore. In particular, the researchers also tested 380 five- and six-year-old pre-schoolers on their proficiency in character recognition and oral Chinese, and if such tests are conducted longitudinally or extended to more students, there could be a better understanding of the status quo.
While it is encouraging that young Chinese Singaporeans and their parents – according to the SCCL study – seem to have not completely neglected Chinese, what is this “strength” benchmarked against? Besides the intuitive finding that those with more exposure to the Chinese language performed better in the oral and written tests, what about the other factors: the socio-economic background of the families, the race and ethnicity of parents, and whether the pre-schoolers may have benefited from school or even tuition and enrichment? After all, patterns of language use can help educators craft appropriate strategies in the classroom.
There are therefore many advantages in continuing similar studies over the long term. First, as the pre-schoolers go on to different schools with perhaps dissimilar pedagogies, the efficacy of these pedagogies – while controlling for the demographic or socio-economic factors, as aforementioned – can be tested. Second, in the classrooms, teaching-learning initiatives can be evaluated through randomised assignments, within and between schools. Third, within the households, parents might have a better idea of how to communicate with their children or to foster interest in a language from a young age.
In the even longer term, if Chinese language use is expected to go down – and it is expected “that the younger generation will eventually speak more English … as they grow up with siblings and peers together” – would it be expedient to also rethink how bilingualism is operationalised in Singapore? And if Chinese-speaking households or environments are necessary for students to speak and read better in Chinese, what happens to those who do not enjoy such advantages? Should a deeper examination of the second language then follow?
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.