Are We Losing Our Bilingual Edge?

In Chinese, there’s a common proverb used among educators – “十年树木,百年树人”. A literal translation will mean – “It takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to upbring a person with good values”.

Education takes time and efforts. And a lot of patience.

To me, speaking Mandarin feels like going home, and it started very early on in my schooling days.

In Singapore, the bilingual education policy started from the late 70s, and it ensures all Chinese Singaporeans have access to master two languages concurrently, from primary to secondary school levels – which adds up to about 10 years of learning, notwithstanding most would have attended at least 2 years of pre-school education, picking up Chinese too.

I was among the first few batches of students qualified to take up the Language Elective Program (LEP) – then, the Singapore government recognizes the need to cultivate a group of talents with deeper knowledge and sensitivities with Chinese culture, in view of the emerging China market. Being an LEP student not only allows me to deep dive into Chinese poetry and literature readings, we’re also strongly encouraged to pursue and understand Chinese culture through immersion and student exchange camps overseas, first in Taiwan, and then China for subsequent batches. 

As a student more comfortable speaking and writing in Chinese, it was a natural fit and I never felt like the odd ball, as a student who can speak Mandarin well, but stumbles from time to time, to speak English fluently.

Never would I know or foresee, the bedrock to support the learning of Chinese was already undergoing tremendous challenge, and it was happening at a rate, faster than I could fathom.

In 1999, when I was pursuing a Communication Studies degree in a higher institute of learning in NTU, sweeping changes are being made at the primary school level – with hanyu pinyin being introduced as the entry point approach to teach Chinese. This is a response to help early-stage learners cope with this “difficult” language and to provide scaffolding for students more used to speaking English at home and at play.

A typical Singaporean primary school student gets about 3-4 hours of school day Chinese lessons in a week. And if they are lucky, in a class of 40 odd students, one will get a fraction of the lesson time to converse in Mandarin. Other times, in other classes, all other subjects, e.g. Math and Science are taught in English.

It’s only natural that students will prefer to speak in English than Mandarin.

However, as the number of English-speaking students grow, if you start to speak Mandarin to your classmates outside of Chinese lessons, you are likely to be viewed differently or find that your classmates are responding to you in English anyway. If you persist to speak Mandarin, you may start to get some frowns, and maybe, just maybe, lesser pals.

So while speaking Mandarin feels like going home for me thirty years ago – students these day feel very much at home speaking English.

I could go on and on about this, complaining about how the external environment has changed and how Chinese language is now at a disadvantage position for learners to pick up – but that would be fruitless.

We contributed to this outcome in one way or another over the last 50 odd years. We have made decisions that created the external environment.

But, if we value another more desirable outcome, it is within our control to make a change. And parents, if you are reading this – you’re a big part of that change.

And taking wisdom from the opening Chinese proverb, to plant the new seeds to nurture another generation of children keen to pursue Chinese as a life-long skill -that will take time and efforts – from all of us.

Together, we can make a difference!

I will share more of what we can do as parents to reverse the tide, and to nurture a bilingual home environment.

Co-Founder Vitamin M
(Father of two boys, 10 and 7)

Mandarin Chinese speaking at home becomes difficult and challenging

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