I have been catching up with local news by reading all the past week issues of Straits’ Times. One hot topic was MM Lee’s admission that Chinese had not been taught better, resulting in a few generations of kids who grew up hating the subject. This was followed by many letters to the forum page, lamenting about missed opportunities because of Chinese, and how many wished he had said that sooner.
My mother’s colleague from Mobil actually left his cushy job at Mobil to migrate to US because his three children could not handle Chinese, since they are Peranakan, and spoke Hokkien/Malay as mother tongue. I visited them in Florida twice. Although his kids were doing brillently, Uncle JC had to worked the night shift in a petrol station, a dangerous job in Orlando because of the crime rate. The second time I visited, he was tanned from working under the hot sun in a koisk in Disney World. What huge sacrifice he had made for his kids because of Chinese.
But it’s not the English-educated that had suffered from Singapore’s bilingual policy. Mike studied in the chinese stream all the way through A levels at HCJC, that meant every subjects, including Physics and Chemistry, Maths, GP were in Chinese. Imagine the difficulty he faced when he went into NUS and studied Engineering entirely in English.
Like him, I studied in the Chinese stream for the first three years. History, Geo, Science, and maths in Chinese. Then in primary four, there was an abrupt change and other than Chinese and Civics lessons, all the other main subjects were conducted in English. It was a blessing for me, coming from an English speaking home, but it resulted in many failures for all my other friends not fluent in English. Mike’s younger brother, my age, was a victim too. In secondary school, many of my friends from Chinese speaking homes struggled with English, and hence the other subjects as well, thereby having to stopped at O’levels because of English. MOE tried to help by getting us to attend immersion lessons in English schools in the afternoon when i was in sec two, but the pupils there ended up speaking Chinese to us. This was scrapped after a year.
I was blessed in that all my relatives, from Grandma to mother to aunts (and now cousins) were all from SCGS and spoke English at home. Hence, I was comfortable speaking English. At Nanyang, I spoke Mandarin to my schoolmates, making me effectively bilingual. I did not struggle with languages, although I did detest having to memorise 解释. I studied both Chinese and English literature, but decided to skip my O’level Chinese Lit on the day of the exams since I had already 8 subjects, enough to scrape by to enter JC.
Unlike me, my kids struggle with languages. Andreas did badly for English that his CTSS teacher thought it was because we spoke dialects or Mandarin at home. Ivan failed all his 听写 that I almost cried when his Chinese teacher showed me his results. (It’s a miracle he got A2 for O’levels). Now, Aaron is also struggling with Chinese, his poorest subject in school. It’s ironical, since both his parents are Chinese-ed.
The recent news that the top PSLE student is from China who did not speak a word of English three years ago when she first arrived is not new. There were similar reports before – mastering a foreign language in three years to top all the others who had been speaking all their lives? So why can’t my kids do better in languages?
In the four days that we were in Macau, Mike and I spoke broken cantonese to our hosts there. It was difficult but we managed, as they spoke only Cantonese to us even though they saw our struggle with the dialect. We were so used to Cantonese that Mike remarked that he almost replied to me in Cantonese when I asked him a question the other day.
Perhaps that’s what Aaron need. A whole week/month/year in China with nothing but Mandarin.