Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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Developmental paediatrician raises some keen questions about the educational policies on bilingualism

Bilingualism will allow Singaporeans to access valuable economic opportunities around the region, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung at the 8th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium on Saturday (24 August).
The guest of honour said that Asia is the fastest-growing region in the world and that a person’s fluency in their mother tongue would give them the edge for job posting in important markets like China, Indonesia, India, or Malaysia.
“You are more likely to be valued for your bicultural expertise and perspective. Knowing an MTL opens up opportunities and this change will gather pace,” said Mr Ong.
“Many countries recognise this and are pushing ahead with multilingual education policies. Bilingualism is no longer Singapore’s unique advantage.”
Along these lines, the government has pushed for students in Singapore to learn and develop proficiency in their mother tongue. One such effort is the Mother Tongue Support Programme that Mr Ong announced which will be introduced in 2021 for all Primary 3 pupils. The programme will extend to all Primary 4 pupils in 2022.
According to a study by the Singapore Centre for Chinese Languages, a pilot programme showed that students who participated in the pilot programme displayed significantly higher levels of engagement.
On the secondary school level, the Ministry of Education will be introducing a reviewed curriculum for mother tongue languages (MTL) beginning with Secondary 1 in 2021. The new curriculum includes a greater infusion of cultural knowledge and appreciation through discussions on traditions, pop culture, current affairs and more as well as exposure to stories from various native languages such as Chinese novels such as Journey to the West and Dream, the Malay anthology Pahlawan Panggung, and the Sanga Ilakkiyam in Tamil.
The government is clearly sticking to their guns by promoting and encouraging the importance of bilingualism, especially in terms of knowing your mother tongue and they’re doing it most vigorously at the primary and secondary school level. Start them young, as the saying goes.

But is the push for bilingualism actually helpful?

However, a development paediatrician Dr Lim Hong Huay argued that using two languages in the computation of Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregates for Secondary 1 posting disadvantages about 15% of primary school students taking foundational MTL or are exempted from MTL every year.
In an opinion piece published on Today on 23 August, Dr Lim pointed out that it’s perhaps time for the government to re-shape their bilingual policy, specifically when it comes to the PSLE.
Dr Lim said, “In the last two decades, advances in brain and language research have offered many illuminating insights into language learning. Fifty years of bilingualism policy have also taught us many lessons. It is perhaps timely to re-examine the PSLE bilingual policy based on latest scientific and practice-based evidence.”
Dr Lim pointed out that the current PSLE system greatly disadvantages children with special needs who are either exempted from MTL or those who are offered foundational programmes. According to the new PSLE and Secondary 1 posting system, students taking Foundation-level MTL and those exempted from MTL are assigned Academic Levels (AL) 6 to 8, meaning they all receive 45-64 marks which is a low pass for a standard-level subject. This is regardless of how foundation-level MTL students perform in their subject.
Dr Lim elaborates, “While such a scoring principle applies to all subjects, its impact is greatest on MTL because of the unique demands of learning a language on a child and the fact that the system imposes two compulsory languages among the four subjects used to calculate PSLE scores.”

What does the science say?

Dr Lim then illustrates his point by highlighting the science of language learning. Specifically, the doctor notes that research in brain, dyslexia and language in the past two decades have shown that the ability to learn languages is varied in a typical population.
Specifically, “Whilst a minority can master two or more languages, the majority are better in the predominant language at home and in the community. However, even with a conducive environment, about 20 per cent of the population is impaired in their native language.”
“There are 3.9 to 9.7 per cent Chinese dyslexics among native Chinese speakers and 5 to 17 per cent English Dyslexics among native English speakers.”
In essence, different children manage languages differently. On top of that, Dr Lim points out that research has shown that the critical period theory is irrelevant for the learning of a second language. The theory states that language learning has to start in early childhood to ensure a good grasp. But when it comes to learning a second language, children and adults and do so quite well given an enabling environment.
“In other words, there is no urgency to force-feed our children and prematurely kill the joy of learning a second language,” asserts Dr Lim.
On that notes, the developmental paediatrician expounds his point by spotlighting the fact that English is already emerging as the new ‘mother tongue’ of Singaporeans given the fact that English is the official administrative language in the country and is the primary medium in schools.

What’s the alternative?

Dr Lim asserts, “The official mother tongues are becoming the “second languages” among younger Singaporeans, as English is found to have permeated the average Singaporean’s life in all aspects.”
As such, Dr Lim suggests that it’s unrealistic to expect all Singaporean children to be equally proficient in two languages by the time they are 12 years old.
“High-stakes educational decisions based on the current PSLE policy will bias and prematurely curtail their future prospects,” warned Dr Lim.
So what’s the alternative? Well, Dr Lim suggests that the PSLE aggregate be calculated using the best three out of four compulsory subjects, with a required pass in English.
“This allows children born with good language ability to pursue excellence in linguistic achievement, whilst those strong in Maths, Science, Art or Sports are not compromised or discriminated against by their relatively weaker linguistic skills.”
“All children are hence given equal freedom to pursue success in life,” said Dr Lim.

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