"Immersion programmes, internships in the works to boost use of mother tongue"

"Immersion programmes, internships in the works to boost use of mother tongue"

Sunday, 03 July 2016

"Immersion programmes, internships in the works to boost use of mother tongue"

SINGAPORE — Ms Elaine Tee, who works in a digital marketing start-up, recalled her teacher using Mandopop star Jay Chou’s songs to expound on Chinese characters and their meanings during Higher Chinese lessons in school. At the same time, the 26-year-old also remembered the frustration of having to memorise scores of “chengyu” (Chinese idioms) for examinations “when there was no context or chance to use them”.

Ms Tee said that she now converses mainly in English, using Mandarin only occasionally when she speaks to her parents. There is no push factor to keep up with her Chinese language abilities because she hardly needs to use Mandarin extensively, she added.


There are many who went through the school system here who probably identify with her experience: After leaving secondary school, the majority of them no longer have lessons in their mother tongue and later lose touch with it because of low usage.

This drop-off in the language capabilities of students will be an area of focus for Singapore’s bilingualism thrust, Parliamentary Secretary (Education) Low Yen Ling said.

Speaking to TODAY ahead of the annual Mother Tongue Language Symposium next month, she said: “We don’t want (our students) to stop learning (their mother tongue language) at Secondary 4 or 5 ... but (the approach) cannot be just instructive.”

She said the way forward is to create natural settings for young Singaporeans to use the language regularly.

Ms Low — the vice-chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism and chair of the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning — spoke about initiatives such as getting schools to work with clan organisations, with tertiary students acting as Mandarin-speaking guides on heritage trails. For a start, 200 secondary school students and 10 tertiary students took part in a cultural heritage walk on Saturday at Bukit Pasoh, and the activity was conducted entirely in Mandarin.

The Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee is working out details with museums and performing arts groups to expose students to the Malay language beyond school, while the Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee plans to seek feedback on how to improve existing programmes.

Ms Low said that beyond partnering community organisations, future possibilities may include immersion programmes and internships for students in Asia where the mother tongue is used. She stressed the need to keep up Singapore’s bilingual policy because it would help Singaporeans to understand that bilingualism is part of the country’s national identity and their cultural heritage. She added: “This century, as some people say, is an Asian century. Being proficient in (our) mother tongue language will allow our children ... to better connect with people and communities in Asia.”

And with English becoming the most-spoken language in Singapore homes, as well as digital technologies competing for children’s attention, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is taking a “differentiated approach” to teaching such languages in schools.

Right now, schools are rolling out the Mother Tongue Language Review Committee’s recommendations made in 2010 that include using infocomm technology resources and varied learning materials to liven up lessons.

Apart from this, Ms Low believes that there is a place for the “B” syllabus for those who struggle with their mother tongue, and to help them stay in touch with the language. MOE statistics show that over the past three years, 4 per cent of each cohort are taking the Chinese Language “B” syllabus, while the figure is about 1 per cent and 2 per cent for those taking Malay Language “B” and Tamil Language “B”, respectively. The option to pursue a Higher Mother Tongue Language in secondary schools is largely dependent on the student’s Primary School Leaving Examination scores.

Against a shrinking student cohort, the MOE reported that the proportion taking Higher O-level Chinese rose from 29.2 per cent in 2013 to 31.6 per cent last year. For Higher Malay, the figure went from 11.8 to 12.4 per cent, and for Higher Tamil, it rose from 24.8 to 27.3 per cent.

While bilingualism remains a cornerstone of Singapore’s education policy, experts say that it is difficult to sustain a culture where the mother tongue is not widely used in the working world. They suggest that there be deliberate efforts to promote its use, with more activities to remind Singaporeans of the importance of maintaining this set of language skills.

Dr Susan Xu, head of SIM University’s translation and interpretation programme, noted that the younger generation’s greater proficiency in English is an inevitable trade-off of having a bilingual policy alongside English as the main working language. But she added that because language is connected to culture, being bilingual can “open up Singaporeans’ minds to both the East and West”. She suggested refresher courses in the community to help people stay in touch with the language.

Tertiary institutes, too, can go beyond hosting English-speaking guest speakers to include those who are conversant in mother tongue languages, such as e-commerce platform Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma. “Students will be exposed to the language and can also subconsciously be reminded to keep up with their mother tongue language abilities,” Dr Xu said.

National Institute of Education’s Associate Professor Aw Guat Poh, who researches second-language teaching, proposed that besides harnessing the media or organising community activities to promote the languages, more work must be done to change perceptions. People must see mother tongue as a communication tool, and not a subject to be learnt just to pass examinations, she said.

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