Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Higher Mother Tongue, Bilingual Talent and Bicultural Elite: A Label Too Many

By Tan Yin Hoe

Language as a tool of cognition and communication is very utilitarian in nature. It is good to the extent which it serves its purposes well. Given that language acquisition is an arduous task that takes time, effort and determination, why would an infant push himself to learn and articulate his discomfort when a whimper serves just as well? It is because, through his interactions with his parents, he has come to realize that feeling ‘hungry’ is different from feeling ‘cold’ and it serves him well to be able to specify his feeling so that his parents can alleviate his woes more efficiently. Utilitarianism is at work right from the start. It is helpful to bear this in mind when trying to understand the problem of language education in Singapore.

Language Learning and the Individual

Langauge learning is essentially a personal matter. One’s motivation to learn a language is primary dependent upon his needs. Such needs may be real or perceived; circumstantial or self imposed. An Italian Jesuit priest on a mission to spread the Catholic faith in China is forced to learn Chinese because of a real need to survive in his new environment. On top of that, he may wish to master a fair bit of Classical Chinese because he believes that an in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture would be useful to his missionary objective. This was probably how Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), one of the first Western Scholars to master the Chinese script and Classical Chinese, managed to learn the Chinese language and become well–versed in Chinese culture. If he were living today, he would likely pass as a foreign breed ‘bicultural elite’ to the Singapore government.

As illustrated above, we are motivated to learn languages based on our personal need. Our motivation to learn subsides at the very point at which that need is forsaken or perceived to be satisfied. One who is satisfied with thinking and expressing oneself through Singlish, for example, would stop short of mastering Queen’s English. The utility of language is entirely determined by how we purport to use it. Using Chinese to do business in China would logically demand a different level of proficiency to using the language to spread the Word of God.

Nontheless, the utility of a language is not always apparent to its learner at the outset. Just as an infant gradually discovers that the expression of ‘hungry’ is better than a whimper, we discover better uses for a language as we go along the way. A good language teacher should be able to highlight the inadequacy of her students’ language by demonstrating a better use for language. As one’s outlook in life can be affected by one’s language ability and vice-versa, such demonstration may well go beyond one of technical expertise.

Individuals take pain to master a language because it serves them well. One is most comfortable and savvy with one’s own mother tongue simply because it has served one well since young. One would naturally make the effort to pick up new languages as need arise. Conversely, when one sees no need for a language, one would be averse to learning it. Such are the dynamics to language acquisition at the individual level. To the individual, language learning is a very pragmatic issue – You either see a need to it, or you don’t. Things start getting complicated when the state intervenes.


State Ideology in place of Pragmatism 

The problem with language education, in particular, Chinese education in Singapore can be summed up as the eclipse of pragmatism at the individual level by an all-pervasive ideology championed by the State.

The State has mandated English to be the main medium of instruction in schools and the de facto official language when English is virtually a foreign language to more than 70% of the population, which is predominantly Chinese.

The State has dictated Mandarin to be the mother tongue of all Chinese Singaporean when our true mother tongues are in fact Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka etc. To the English educated, their true mother tongue is English.

When it was found that a substantial number of students could not cope with their ‘mother tongues’ equally well, a ‘higher mother tongue’ programme was introduced to groom the so-called ‘bilingual talent’, so that those who cannot cope can learn at their own pace. The irony is, the term ‘Higher Chinese’ does not refer to any qualitative improvement in instruction but rather an across-the-board compromise of standards so that those who are coping fairly well seem to be learning at a ‘higher’ standard than their peers. The standard of ‘Higher Chinese’ has been dropping ever since.

A quick comparison of Chinese standards with our Malaysian counterpart will show how far behind our Chinese language instruction has lagged. Not to mention China or Taiwan. A European admitted to a University in Taiwan could possibly speak better than the average Singaporean student. Given such facts, the labeling of a section of our students as ‘bilingual talent’ or, even more unabashedly, ‘bicultural elite’ is at best building castles in the air. At worst, it is a delusion that incites vanity among the brighter of our students when there is in fact nothing much to be proud of.


Re-empowerment of the Individual

The pertinent question is this: Does our education aim to serve each and every Singaporean as individuals or does it serve the State? Like an anxious parent, the State has always been too quick to judge what is best for her citizenry: We should learn English because it is the language of global business, science and technology; We should learn Chinese, Malay or Tamil to keep in touch with our cultural roots; We should be bilingual in order to be competitive; and now, ever more than the past, we should learn Chinese so as to be able to do businesses in China. These are the principles that guided our education policy. But why should all Singaporeans buy and believe in these dogma?

As said above, individuals are motivated to learn languages based on their personal need. The learning cycle can be briefly represented by the diagram below:



For learning to be sustainable, the results of learning must feedback into one of the internal factors that give rise to the need or desire to learn. Whether such feedback exists in our language instruction programme is highly questionable. The only difference between English and Chinese is that for English, there are always the ‘external factors’ to push one to learn, while for Chinese, there are none outside the second language classroom – therefore the dismal standard. (Not that our average standard of English is anything more laudable anyway. )

To sum up, language learning is a personal matter. Each and every person must feel the need and see the point in learning in order for learning to be sustainable. State ideology threatens to undermine the real personal needs of Singaporeans by fitting all into one standard mould in the sanctified name of nation building. This has resulted in a dire lack of internal factors that make language learning meaningful to the individual. If we are learning Chinese all because the State deems it proper for us to learn, learning Chinese is bound to be nothing but a chore. Likewise for English or any other languages.

The onus of learning should be given back to the individual. The State should function as a facilitator that provides a diversified range of effective means for individuals to achieve their personal goals, rather than prescribing standard goals for all individuals to follow.

What MOE can consider doing is this: Instead of persistently inventing fanciful names that mask the failure of our language education, try working on improving the quality of instruction so that every child would find language learning fun and meaningful. Standards, while tailoring to the needs of students at different levels, should never be compromised.

MOE should consider dropping the bilingual ideology for the time being and work on providing high-standard instruction for different languages independently instead. An appreciation of other languages and cultures can be given in translation. Let individuals choose which language they would like to learn. Those willing and able should be free to take up two or more languages of their choice. Only when we can provide a good education in English, and an equally good one in Chinese or any other language concurrently can bilingualism or, for that matter, biculturalism become a reality, not just a label. [1]

[1] Professor Zhu Chongke from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, National University of Singapore Ph.D, shares the same opinon as the author. His article, in Chinese, can be found here: http://www.douban.com/note/222629028/

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