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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Choose Your Tongue

There seems to be some recognition by the Ministry of Education that not all children can successfully learn 2 languages. With that, someone suggested that Mother Tongue (Chinese, Tamil and Malay) be weighted less in the PSLE exams. This raised concerns about further diluting Singaporeans' grasp of Chinese. This raised concerns about disadvantaging those who are better at Chinese than at English. This raised concerns about positioning the Singaporean workforce to meet a future world where China is powerful and wealthy. PM Lee Hsien Loong decided to weigh in on the matter, stating clearly that the emphasis on Chinese will not be lessened.

However, the fact still remains that not every child can successfully cope with 2 languages. The fact still remains that some very English-speaking intelligent children are denied a place in elite schools because of Mother Tongue. If Mother Tongue weightage were cut however, it would mean that some very Chinese-speaking intelligent children may be denied a place in elite schools because of English.

No fair. Not fair at all.

That being the case, why not compute PSLE t-scores on only 3 subjects? Math + Science + [MotherTongue OR English]. This way, the best and the brightest in Math and Science PLUS one language can stand an equal chance of getting into elite schools no matter whether they are from Chinese, Malay, Tamil or English speaking homes? Of course, to maintain a minimum level of literacy in 2 languages, it would have to be stipulated that students must at least PASS the other language.

This sounds fair to me.

However, downstream, there will be a whole lot of adjustments to make. Would those who use Chinese more need to be taught Geography etc... in Chinese too? If not, it does mean that these Chinese-speaking children will be even more disadvantaged in secondary school and JC especially since General Paper is taught in English... and every other subject is taught in English (History, Geography, Literature).

Computing the PSLE t-score on 3 subjects would mean that these Chinese-speaking students have an excuse not to work at English in primary school. They will suffer in secondary school and JC because their poor grasp of English disadvantages them in the elite school system. Unless of course, the elite schools run 2 separate systems wherein those who are Chinese-speaking are taught everything in Chinese... and those who are English-speaking are taught everything in English. Somehow, I can't see our elite schools do that at all.

Furthermore, at the end of 15 years of such segregation, the fault lines between Chinese-speaking and English-speaking would have become so deep that we'll probably revert back to 4 subjects computation just to unify the country again. Possible right?

The problem of Chinese-speaking students failing in our elite school system is a real one. I teach many who get poor grades because they have a poor grasp of English. These people are talent too! They just have so little competence in English that they cannot write English essays well enough to do well in subjects that are taught in English. All along, in the past few decades, these are people who could have made it into the elite school system if only they didn't have to score well in English.

Hmmmmm... sticky problem this huh? It ain't easy to be a politician. Much easier to be an armchair commentator.

But the 3-subject computation is an idea, no?

But at the end of the day, I think it's odd to change a policy to suit student performance. Policies should be based on national exigencies. Bilingual education has gone some way in unifying a melting pot of cultures that Singapore still is. Chinese will become economically more important in a world where China is THE economic power. Malay is important because we need to be able to relate to our neighbours. And hey... India is no economic pushover either as the world meets the future.


Blur Ting said...

I know, this is so tricky. Just because my kids (their entire primary school in fact) are so bad at learning mandarin, I thought it was a pretty good idea to reduce the weightage.

Then again, what about those who are strong in mandarin?

Your suggestion sounds like a practical one.

I'm quite glad my kids are out of primary school already or I too would be agonising over this.

Open Kitchen Concept said...

I hated having to take the Chinese language all through my school days. Then, I went to work in China and realised what an advantage it was.. to be able to converse fluently in both English and Mandarin. Oh.. BTW, I still owe u the scones recipe. I haven't forgotten - just trying to do it again to make sure it works perfect. :D Will try to do that this weekend..