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I am Singaporean II: Bilingualism is Bad(?) November 18, 2009

Posted by The Truth in I am Singaporean Vol. III.

So our favourite octagenarian has decided to come and tell us his insistence on bilingualism in the education system was wrong.

What was he thinking, saying such a thing?!

In fact, his insistence on bilingualism was one of the things he actually got right, in my humble opinion.  Just that it was poorly put into practice.  VERY POORLY.  I mean, you can’t have a cultural cleansing first (i.e. shutting down Chinese schools and Nantah, enforcing a common curriculum where language of instruction is fixed) and THEN try to encourage bilingualism!  It’s a good example of what happens when politicians, who aren’t teachers, try to set an education programme to follow certain pragmatic political goals.

In doing so, Chinese was effectively removed as the language of instruction in schools, excepting a select few subjects.  Everything else is in English, save the compulsory 2nd mother tongue, and Higher mother tongue (what is higher anyway?) if one can make it.  If not, everything else is in English.  That managed to ensure conformity in curricular planning, but it effectively destroyed the possibility of true bilingualism for those growing up in a monolingual environment.  I mean, mother tongue lessons are just one out of seven, maybe up to ten subjects which are taught in English.  There is hardly any exposure to the second mother tongue, neither at home nor at school.  So how on Earth do you expect bilingualism to be possible, given the circumstances?

MM speaks like someone who has learn Chinese as a foreign language.  Well, let’s remember that MM is monolingual first, okay?  And he tells us that it’s impossible for one to master two languages at the same level of proficiency, so we should not coddle ourselves?  My Chinese is definitely not reduced to saying 你好! 华语酷! 我要去厕所!, okay?  My friends from China and Taiwan understand me perfectly well, and I certainly don’t have a problem with calling myself multilingual.  His problem is that he started learning Chinese LATE – for him, it is inevitable that he should not be proficient in Chinese.  Bilingualism is something which children can be taught, especially if they are exposed to the languages in question.  But politically and economically at the time, English was seen as much more important.  So many parents decided to teach their children English as their first language, avoiding Chinese and making it a foreign language to them.

And by the way, who made him a neurologist now?  If he would bother to do some research before distributing his brand of wisdom, he would have insisted that parents be bilingual and for both languages to be used parallel to each other at home.  You don’t even have to send your kids to school for them to be effectively bilingual.  Starting late means that the brain’s language center has already developed such that it will be able to process information in the dominant language much better, at the cost of easily acquiring other languages.  MM’s trials and tribulations are the views of one who has been taught Chinese, who didn’t acquire Chinese from exposure to the language.  English and Chinese are two very different languages – so how to do you expect students to be able to learn them effectively, even if Chinese was taught in English?

Speaking of which, English is very dissimilar to Malay as well, and is only slightly hardly related to Indian (Proto-German, the ancestor of English would be more related to Sanskrit, the ancestor of modern Tamil) *I stand corrected – Comment 5*.  So the subtle encouragement of a monolingual environment for kids which was partly caused by the balance of powers then and the perception of Chinese as evilly Communist (now, MM had a hand in this in shutting down the institutions where children could get a lot of exposure to Chinese) has resulted in the situation today, where most people would like to believe they were bilingual, but are not.  And educational policy has not helped in restricting Chinese to Chinese lessons, effectively producing a generation of parents who were mostly English-monolingual, who ridiculed “cheenapoks” because they couldn’t understand them.

But no, the perception is that more learning is the right way ahead.  Parents have to understand that language acquisition is partly their job as well.  You can’t send your kids to school and hope they can come home and speak Chinese fluently, unless you have taken the effort to speak to your toddler in Chinese.  Instead, we have Chinese for pre-schoolers now!  Children from 3 to 6 should learn Chinese!  I wonder how that will work.  Imagine that you only speak English at home.  Then your toddler goes to kindergarten and learns Chinese, but who is he going to speak it with at home?  What’s the point in that?  Already the principle is wrong.  I only managed to become fluent in German (not perfect) when I had German lessons every single day in JC and when German was actually spoken.  Rote learning can’t give you what exposure does.  But in Singapore, everything is kept separate from each other.  NO CHINESE EXCEPT DURING CHINESE LESSONS, right?

The biggest mistake is not putting an educator as the head of MOE, but a politician, or a surgeon, or a Rear-Admiral.

So that there is “positive criticism” (heh i like that term since it sounds so contradictory), I would suggest looking at the system of Luxembourg.  Children who go to school are schooled first in German, then after they are 12, the language of instruction for the entire syllabus changes gradually from German to French.  How’s that sound?  Of course, the second language is taught in school as well.  But what is needed is exposure, and a complete language change should probably do the trick.

By the way, did I miss the word “sorry” in the story?