Nov 3, 2009

The Bilingual Policy & Its Victims

ST Nov 3, 2009
Bilingual policy was most difficult: MM
It took 30 years to get method of teaching Mandarin correct, he says
By Jeremy Au Yong

INTELLIGENCE does not necessarily translate into a flair for languages.

That was the lesson Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he learnt in implementing the bilingual policy in schools.

'Initially, I believed that intelligence was equated to language ability. Later, I found that they are two different attributes - IQ and a facility for languages. My daughter, a neurologist, confirmed this,' he said in an interview carried in Petir, the People's Action Party magazine.

Asked to pick policies he would have implemented differently, he cited the teaching of bilingualism, especially in English and Mandarin, as the most difficult policy.

'I did not know how difficult it was for a child from an English-speaking home to learn Mandarin,' he said.

'If you are speaking English at home and you are taught Mandarin in Primary 1 by Chinese teachers who teach Mandarin as it was taught in the former Chinese schools, by the direct method, using only Mandarin, you will soon lose interest because you do not understand what the teacher is saying.

'You spend time on extra tuition, and still make little progress. Many were turned off Mandarin for life.'

In the end, the Government recognised that students with the same ability in other subjects may not be able to cope being in the same second language class. It took 30 years for the issue to be resolved.

'Eventually, we settled the problem in 2004 by teaching the mother tongue in the module system. Had we done this earlier, we would have had less wastage of students' time and effort, and less heartache for parents,' he said candidly.

He took 30 years to see that "intelligence does not necessarily translate into a flair for languages". Wow, that is so ... not quick.

But the biggest problem with the bilingual policy was not the way the Chinese language (or for that matter, the English language) was taught in schools.

The biggest problem was the government's rigid insistence (that lasted for many years) that a student who wished to progress to the next higher stage of education would have to pass both English and Chinese - entirely regardless of what he wanted to study, at the next stage.

So for instance, let's say you are outstanding in mathematics. In the A-levels, you score distinctions for your maths and maths-related subjects. You have always scored distinctions for your maths. And you wish to go to university to pursue a maths degree.

However, you flunked your Chinese paper. Therefore you will not be allowed to study maths in university.

That was the way it used to be, in the past. The bilingual policy was characterised by a very striking lack of logic.

Well, on the bright side, the system is more flexible now. Yes, it took the government a few decades to fix it. But better late than never.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Govt thinks that just because a few of their tough unpopular policies which were shaft down the people's throat, and these policies had worked, they assumed all unpopular policies are the same.This mandarin policy has caused alot of people lots of grief and money for tuition and having to go overseas for a degree. Those who can't afford it have to pay higher fees to study privately.The other policy is the "Stop at Two." I know my brother wanted to have a third kid, but can't.That's why we need more opposition representation in parliament.

Charles said...

It show how Singapore policies are too Lee centric and in dire need of open modern voices.
He admits it took 30 years because he was slow to understand and slow to change his mind (legendary stubborn)
We know when people get old they resist change so we should ourselves consider lucky that LKY has a neurologist of a daughter! what would have become of Singapore if she had been a Mandarin Scholar!

yh said...

what about those who grew up in mandarin speaking families and cant perform for GP? they dont get to go university even if they scored As for their chinese papers. will the government say, let's teach english in mandarin or malay or tamil for those who cant cope with it?

and what about those who flunk chinese but then take 3rd language lessons like french, german or jap and performed well? do they really have no flair for languages? most wont even have the environment to practise these 3rd languages as compared to the abundant chances to practise mandarin. yet they cant even speak a proper sentence in mandarin but they are fluent in other languages. no flair for languages or just plain rejection?

jude said...

I totally agree with your insight on this Mr. Wang. But I think - while better late than never - the system's change might have come too late for some. Think of how many thousands of people who had to leave the country just because of this policy - how many thousands of dollars spent - just because of the system's myopia.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if the policy was not put in place to help ensure "educational" advances of certain groups while aiding a divide that continues today.

When MM talks about having to continue to help the Malays in Singapore I wonder how much he is willing to recognize that Govt. policies contributed and even created the problem.

Anonymous said...

yes - a whole generation of students who were not able to go to GCE A levels cos they failed Chinese. Damn.

At least now they have a conversational mother tongue.

Anonymous said...

Imagine how many families uprooted because of this. How many citizens' careers negatively affected because they failed their 2nd language. How many lives disrupted, careers thwarted? 30 years is a long time. Thanks to their slowness to admit (this itself is a big step) but not to the people. For those who suffered, what solace can they find?

henry said...

How about those students who flunked their english papers and yet scored distinctions in Maths or Science?

Is the system flexible enough to accommodate this side of the coin?

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those that scored reasonably well for my A Levels, yet was not permitted to enter the local Uni because I flunked my mother tongue.

Thanks MM Lee!

Anonymous said...

therefore we must import more PRCs to enhance our mandarin mah.

Anonymous said...

I think the most important take-away from this is that the PAP appears to suffer from blind-spot syndrome. Convinced of their own superior rationality, the men in white seem to take pleasure in heroically pushing unpopular measures to display their toughness/macho-ness. They are convinced, a priori, that they are right because they are smart (the measure being their shiny degrees).

The unpopularity of a given policy convinces them even further that they are on the right path, since they have helicopter vision which allows them to see far beyond what the masses are able to. Hence, it takes far longer for a course correction to take place because the usual signal that a policy is not working - widespread disaffection - is perversely taken instead to be a sign of its efficacy.

Another significant example is the case of F1. Originally, LKY and Co. said no because in their experience, motor sports events of the past caused a rise in reckless, race-like driving. It took them a long time to recognize that times had changed, and that the F1 event was now a legitimate means of bringing in tourism dollars and media attention.

tkl said...

IMO it was (and probably still is) a deep-seated cultural problem, stemming from the divide between Eng-speaking Chinese elites vs Ch-speaking new immigrants way back in the colonial days. The discrimination worked both ways, Eng-speaking = banana/rootless/etc, Ch-speaking = low class/uncool. Kids from both sides suffered a great deal learning the other language, but the imperative to learn Eng is so much stronger simply cos all other subjects are taught in Eng, the unofficial national language. Which is why effectively Ch-Eng bilingual S'poreans usually come from Ch-speaking families. MM Lee has never been good at recognising problems in social/cultural terms...

Anonymous said...

So it was ok to force a whole generation of Chinese-educated people to switch almost overnight to the English stream?

They weren't given much of a choice either.

ACS said...

He is an old man now... at least he admitted to his mistakes...

Mr Wang Says So said...

Hello Jude:

Nice to see you around. Been a long time since we last met.

Anonymous said...

" But better late than never. "

That depends on who you are, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

There should be a law for political crimes -the crime of wrong or failed policies established with hard evidence on hind sight.
Heavier penalities should be levied when there is evidence that the policies should have been changed much earlier, but wer not for no good reason.

Punishment would include slashing retiremenmt benefits and a censure in the sitting parliament.

That should deter the tendency for politicians to disregard the citizens for self interest reasons. ;)

a said...

Well, they are still crewing up the system now with the MATHS..

Why do kids need to know how many sweets did the other person have in the first place thru the hard way ?

Victoria said...

Re yh's comment: "..and what about those who flunk chinese but then take 3rd language lessons like french, german or jap and performed well? do they really have no flair for languages?"


yh seems to be implying that for some people it is not their lack of language ability that makes it hard for them to learn chinese but that they cannot be bothered to learn chinese, instead preferring to learn other languages.

When I was in school (about 10 years ago, I am 26 now), only students who did well in second language were allowed to take a third language, so I think this is a moot point, unless the policy has changed now.

It may be possible to argue that it is easier for an english speaker to learn a romance/latin language since they have the same roots as English but I don't think this is true. I have personally never come across anyone who is crap at Chinese and really good at French, German etc.

All my friends who are good at these languages are also very good at Chinese so it seems that some people are naturally good at languages and some people just aren't.

Hey believe me, I am a victim of this policy. You cannot believe how much time i spent on learning chinese, extra tuition, chinese exchange programmes, memorising the 1000 cheng yus, religiously trying to improve my vocab by reading the chinese newspaper etc. I still only got C5 at AO level. Luckily I passed. I was a typical hardworking student with good grades in my other subjects, so it was not a question of not trying hard enough. I think the stress of trying to memorise enough stuff to pass just completely took any fun out of learning and I never developed any interest in the language. I enjoy reading (english) for pleasure and have an interest in literature generally so it is not that I lack sensitivity in that respect. I wish I could be interested in Chinese and take it up again but those years of forcing myself to learn it has destroyed any chance of that happening.

I have since taken some classes in French and Spanish for fun and I am really bad at those too! I have just resigned myself to being monolingual.

Ape said...

Perhaps gahmen realised it much earlier but just don't have the time to find a solution because there were... more important things to do?

Anonymous said...

"Victoria said:" I have personally never come across anyone who is crap at Chinese and really good at French and German etc."

Well, Victoria, my sister-in-law is really crap at Chinese, but she speaks fluent French and German. She communicates with her Algerian husband in French mostly.

Anonymous said...

Another classic example of social engineering by our Mr know it all. The cost of all this high falutin policies only surface 30 yrs later while the damage needs another generation of S'poreans to rectify. There shd be some accountability, nobody shd be allowed to walk away like that.

Anonymous said...

This is Singapore, my friend. The government doesn't have to account to you.

Anonymous said...

" I have personally never come across anyone who is crap at Chinese and really good at French, German etc."


Interestingly, I have come across many Singaporeans who are crap at Mandarin, but quite articulate in Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew or whatever their real mother tongue is.

Cavalock said...

that is exactly what happened to me, i flunked my ‘O’ levels chinese and was denied a place in higher ed, passed everything else. Till today, 20 years later i still wonder how different things would have turned out...

Anonymous said...

谈受害者,千万别忘了1980年代因为英文不好而无法继续升学的华校优秀生。我身边就有很多这种故事,他们别说上大学,连初级学院都进不去。

Anonymous said...

for those who give all sorts of excuses and claim that they tongue can only speak English, watch this:

http://www.razor.tv/site/servlet/segment/main/news/38560.html

(A Chinese national who came to S'pore to work 1 1/2 yrs ago can now converse with his Indian customers in Tamil.)

Xin

Mr Wang Says So said...

You missed the point, Xin.

And the point is this - some people can learn languages easily, and some people cannot ...

but it shouldn't be the case that those who cannot,

are therefore stopped from studying maths. (Or engineering, or accountancy, or whatever).

Mr Wang Says So said...

If your point is to insist that everyone can easily learn a 2nd language,

just because the PRC chap on TV was able to ...

.... well, this is like saying that just because one person (or a small minority of persons) is able to do something,

then everyone else should be able to do it too.

Which clearly isn't right.

People are all different. Some are naturally more talented than others, in language, or maths, or art, or physical agility, or social skills, or music.

How would you like it, if you are disqualified from studying science, because you always sing out of tune?

Trebuchet said...

It's been safe to say that Chinese no longer has to be a necessity because since 2004, the population of P1 students coming from English-speaking families has exceeded that from Mandarin-speaking families. Those kids are now doing their PSLE.

Do look at these documents, if you wish:

http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/1999/200199a.htm

http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2004/pr20040109.htm

Enjoy!

Trebuchet said...

Oh by the way, I was tickled by the title, because it seemed to echo 'Globalization and Its Discontents' by Stiglitz. Haha...

skeptic said...

The language policy was one of the main things that annoyed me in Singapore. I flunked my chinese A-Level many years ago and was told I had to go for chinese camp.

So I chucked my NUS admission letter aside and went overseas instead. I have never looked back since.

Anonymous said...

The maths syllabus in our schools is totally disjointed.

In primary school, students are made to use model-method and pictorial forms to solve problems. Algebra is absolutely NOT allowed to be used, even if it may be the easier method.

When the students go to secondary school, model method problem solving math is totally discarded and the emphasis in on algebraic math. Hardly anyone talks about model method from secondary school all the way up to university.

If that is the case, why bother to learn model method only to discard it right after PSLE?

Oh well, we need to wait for Lee to think about this problem before we act on it.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the government will solve that problem. In, like, another 30 years.

Sophie said...

What about those people who are not even chinese to begin with?