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.