chinesewordsCome March, the Ministry of Education will be announcing changes to the way Chinese language is being tested and taught in schools. These announcements will be made during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament.

The ministry has been studying teaching models from China, the United States and Switzerland – which are more focused on helping student to be comfortable in speaking and using the language rather than on writing. We can expect to see changes in approach that will take into account students' differing grasps of the language at the point of starting primary school (rather than a one-size-fits-all), and variable teaching modes in both primary and secondary school. Already, Chinese is being taught using English in selected primary schools and the oral component of examinations has also been increased. We are likely to see more refinements along the same lines in future.

These impending changes are a welcome acknowledgement of the increasing numbers of students who speak predominantly English at home, and are struggling to cope with Chinese in school. Such is the concern among many parents nowadays that they are starting their children off on Chinese tuition from as young as nursery, so that they will be able to cope in primary school.

Food for thought:

‘Teaching a student Chinese language as a second language is fundamentally different from teaching students whose mother tongue is Chinese. Our teaching approaches must reflect this.' - Dr Ng Eng Hen, Education Minister

This is a significant announcement given that for decades, we grew up associating ‘mother tongue’ with ‘second language’ in schools, and that the choice of language was usually assigned automatically based on ethnicity. The changes will cast a lifeline for those who may be Chinese in ethnicity but whose effective ‘mother tongue’ – the language first spoken by a person in childhood, or the language in which the person is most conversant in and uses to communicate with family members – is English. Hopefully, we can expect changes that will go beyond just making it easier for them to cope with learning Chinese, but will make them want to use the language in practical settings, and appreciate Chinese culture as well. And ideally - that such amendments and improvements for the teaching and testing of Chinese as a second language be considered for Malay and Tamil as well, so that other students will also stand to benefit.