My struggle with Chinese

Hearing MM Lee Kuan Yew admit that his bilingual policy caused generations of students to pay a heavy price because of his “ignorance” made me feel somewhat vindicated, after the years of struggling with learning Chinese in school.

Hearing MM Lee Kuan Yew admit that his bilingual policy caused generations of students to pay a heavy price because of his “ignorance” made me feel somewhat vindicated, after the years of struggling with learning Chinese in school.

In his speech at the launch of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language two days ago, MM Lee talked about how Singapore schools’ emphasis on reading and writing Chinese, instead of on listening and speaking, was the wrong approach. He singled out 默写 (memorising an entire Chinese passage and regurgitating it in a test) as “madness” (疯狂). I couldn’t agree more!

I grew up in a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) family. I spoke only English to my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents. None of my immediate or extended family members could speak Mandarin — their Malay was much better. My parents could speak a smattering of Hokkien and Cantonese, but they mistakenly did not teach my sister and me dialects for fear of confusing us when we learned Mandarin in school.

I went to the most kentang of schools — Anglo-Chinese School — for all my school life. In ACS, no one spoke Mandarin — not even in Chinese class. We had weekly Speak Mandarin Tuesdays, where the National Pledge and morning devotions were conducted in Mandarin, and the boys were ordered to speak Mandarin during recess or face being booked by the prefects. Of course we all chose to be booked. To top it off, I was always at the bottom of my Chinese class.

I had Chinese tuition from, I think, primary 3 onwards. But it was in primary 5 that things really took a turn for the worse. I still remember clearly what happened. It was the first Chinese test of the school year and I got 60/100 — the lowest in my class by far. I think the second lowest scorer was my friend Carl who got 65, and the next lowest was in the high 70s.

My Chinese teacher — and I still remember his name but won’t mention it here — told me angrily: “我要你带回家叫你爸爸签名!” (I want you to to take the test paper home and ask your father to sign it.) He insisted on my dad signing it, because for some reason he knew my dad was a tough disciplinarian.

So I went home and burst into tears as I told my mum what happened, and how I hated learning Chinese. To my relief, my dad just signed it and told me, “Nevermind, as long as you tried your best and passed.”

Primary 5 was a terrible year in Chinese class for me. The teacher — and I’m not sure whether he did it deliberately or not — made me feel like I was a disgrace to my own race for not speaking Chinese well. “华人要讲华语” (Chinese people must speak Mandarin) was a phrase I heard quite a lot in those years. This — more than anything else — made me resent the Chinese language, Chinese culture, and indeed my classmates who excelled in Chinese tests.

Interestingly, this particular experience was not unique to me. A friend whose Chinese is almost as hopeless as mine once related how a Chinese teacher had asked him derisively, “你到底会不会用筷子?” (Do you even know how to use chopsticks?)

Fortunately I don’t bear that resentment against the Chinese language (or the culture or Chinese-speaking folks for that matter) any more. Most tellingly, I married a wonderful woman who grew up in a Chinese speaking household, and is perfectly comfortable speaking Mandarin to her friends and Teochew to her family members. Nowadays I try to improve my Chinese by regularly reading aloud Chinese news websites with the help of software that displays the Chinese characters together with hanyu pinyin and English translations. I also speak Mandarin to my wife whenever possible. In addition, going on my weekly house visits with my Workers’ Party colleagues requires me to communicate in Chinese with residents in the HDB heartlands.

I am determined to ensure that my children don’t suffer the same language struggle as I did. My wife speaks to our 1-year-old exclusively in Mandarin, while my mother-in-law speaks only Teochew to her. In doing this, I’m trying to get my girl used to speaking Chinese to at least her mother and grandmother. I also hope to avoid the situation that befalls many parents, whose kids reply in English even when they are spoken to in Mandarin.

MM Lee, in his speech, said that teachers should use English to teach English-speaking children Chinese. I don’t think this is the right way. Perhaps for the first half of primary 1, but no further. You can’t learn to speak a language well by programming your mind to think in English and translate it mentally into Chinese.

I agree with his suggestion, though, to “cut out” writing and allow students to use pinyin on computers. It works great for me when typing in Chinese is just an “Alt-Shift” away. In any case, in 12 years time, when today’s first graders leave school, I don’t think any of them are going to be writing with pen and paper any more.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

30 thoughts on “My struggle with Chinese”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    And I thought I am the only clown who suffer the same fate as you. I recall how my mum was disgusted that my chinese regularly score 50 – 60 upon 100. And sometimes, even 45/100. While I love chinese culture, I hated chinese lessons. The chinese teachers in those days kept saying “hua ren jiang hua yu” and how chinese is even easier than english as it has no grammer. In fact, I hated it to the point where I scored a passable grade in A Levels. Just enough for me to enter university.

    Needless to say, my mum had to sign on the test paper and each time she sign, she was always full of red mist. haiz.


  2. Singapore ought to learn from the Chinese schools in Malaysia and see how they teach Chinese. I grew up in Malaysia, in an English-speaking family, but my parents sent me to a Chinese school because they wanted me to learn Chinese. I never had problems learning it and still love the language.

    Most Malaysians I know tend to be more fluent in Chinese than Singaporeans too. Malaysian Chinese schools must be doing something right.

  3. Does it not expose the truth that MM Lee’s interest in Chinese is entirely motivated by his political aims and objectives nothing at all about ensuring the growth and glorification of the Chinese language.

    One could be misled by the meaning of his name though.

    I am aware, because it happened to me, that he was doing Chinese in in the sixties. But, in order to camouflage his true agenda, his Machiavellian nature led him to proceed thus:Schools had loads and loads of Chinese periods on the time table (I had 5-6 periods each week)BUT the master-stroke is that there was only ONE SOLITARY Chinese reader and NOTHING else in terms of material. Two Chinese teachers took turns ‘teaching’ the class,one of whom spent 99% of the time telling us his ‘grandmother’ stories – about his travels and experiences during his younger days, anything to pass the time allocated to him in our class. Then just 10 minutes before time is up, he would pick up the said reader, picked a passage and went through it in a jiffy before he pack up and left, class over!

    To be sure LKY’s language policy is not confined to Chinese. Look at what he did to Malay, our ‘national’ language. The vast majority of Singaporeans DON’T know the national anthem, let alone the meaning of the words.


  4. I’m sorry, I don’t get it. I don’t understand, and I hope you can take me through the reasoning here.

    I’m referring to the prescriptions that MM Lee and yourself are making.

    In order to produce bilingual kids who have any proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, I must NEVER speak to them in English and pretend that my household is a monolingual Mandarin household?

    You’re joking, right? Right?

  5. I agree with his suggestion, though, to “cut out” writing and allow students to use pinyin on computers. It works great for me when typing in Chinese is just an “Alt-Shift” away. In any case, in 12 years time, when today’s first graders leave school, I don’t think any of them are going to be writing with pen and paper any more.


    Dear Gerald, this brings to me another problem.

    If the writing part is cut out, how do you ensure that future generations will know how to write it? Writing Mandarin is very different from writing English, with the former much more difficult than the latter. It will be more difficult if students actually never write it personally before.

    Writing is also a form of method to ingrain the information into the brain. Not learning to write it is like a scientist gaining a new assistant but losing another. So it’s back to square one again – still missing one piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

  6. From my liberal perspective, I think the 2nd languages should be made optional so people will take classes for the love of it. If the government wishes to encourage some level of bilingualism, make the lessons fun and build in some reasonably tangible incentive for taking a second language.

    To me, the biggest mistake made was the one to force everyone to take a “mother tongue”. The second biggest mistake was then to place punitive measures against people who do not do well in their mother tongues. I was also one who suffered the “madness” of uninspired Mandarin classes through Primary, Secondary and Junior College. I ultimately managed a “C6” which spared me the draconian punishment of continuing these classes at NUS (then again, maybe “Mandarin 101” would have helped, but in Singapore I frankly doubt it). Thankfully, it did not make me lose interest in Chinese history or culture.

  7. Akikonomu – I should have mentioned that I speak to my daughter exclusively in English, because I still believe that it is a more important language to master in today’s world — remember it will be 50 years before China overtakes the US.

    My hypothesis is that if I can get my daughter to associate the language with the person (my wife, myself and my MIL), then she is less likely to lapse into speaking the “wrong” language to the wrong person.

    This is not about tricking a child. I believe it works with adults too. Think about it — when you get into a cab, and you see the taxi driver is Chinese, do you speak English or Chinese to him? I usually speak Chinese, because I have learned to associate Chinese taxi driver with Chinese language.

    I think the problem for many households is that both parents speak English 80% of the time to each other and to their kids. Then suddenly they remember they need to get their kids used to speaking Chinese, so they make the occasional switch, hoping their kids will respond in Chinese. This is the same as the Speak Mandarin Tuesdays in ACS. It never works.

    Anyway, I’ll tell you in 5 years whether my hypothesis is correct.

    Jezebella – I agree with you. Perhaps cut out is too strong a word. Students should still be taught writing, so they know the sequence of the strokes. But once they get the grounding, we shouldn’t be too hung up with writing for the sake of it. The ultimate purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate with others, not to show off one’s handwriting skills.

    I remember the introduction of dictionaries in exams was a Godsend for my O levels. I would never got a B4 without it. I knew how to express myself in Chinese, but more often than not didn’t know how to write the words. Now with the computer, I can probably write as well as I can speak.

    Chee Wai – I think if you make 2nd language optional, many students will not take it, given the very stressful academic system here in Singapore — they will take any opportunity to lighten their load, and who can blame them.

    What I would argue for is for parents to be allowed to choose the 2nd language taken by their child, regardless of their race. Of course, the 2nd language options should be only Chinese, Malay and Tamil (our official languages).

  8. Dear Gerald, good luck with the English-Mandarin-Teochew. It _can_ work – I’ve a friend who grew up speaking English to his American father, Swedish to his Swedish mother, and Norwegian to his sister and all his friends, because he grew up in Norway. He is perfectly trilingual. Another friend is also perfectly trilingual – born and grew up in London to French father and Austrian mother.

  9. Think about it — when you get into a cab, and you see the taxi driver is Chinese, do you speak English or Chinese to him?

    This is all very well if you insist on speaking Mandarin only to Chinese people in Singapore. This is all very well if you and uncle can identify any road name in Mandarin. This is all very well if you and uncle can conduct an entire taxi transaction purely in Mandarin. I’m not sure of the wisdom of the first, the probability of the second, and the plausibility of the third.

    I, having experience only in the real world, would assume that when I get into a cab in Singapore, and the taxi driver is Chinese, he would have some command of English to “Uncle, please take me to [road name]” or “Uncle, please take me to [destination:landmark]”. Or even “Uncle, 带我去 Orchard Road, Central Mall”. Or even just, “Central Mall, please”.

    I, having experience only in the real world, have never encountered a cab driver who wouldn’t even recognise a road name in English.

    I, having experience only in the real world, have never encountered a cab driver who insisted on me speaking Mandarin to him just because he’s Chinese and I’m Chinese.

    I, having experience only in the real world, will make a formal complaint if any cabby or salesperson tried to pull this stunt on me.

    What exactly did you base your question on?

  10. Anonymous – Thanks for the encouragement. I think I got the idea from learning about a French/Chinese couple who taught their kids two languages that way.

    Akikonomu – Are you deliberately choosing to misunderstand me or are you just trying to trip me up? I’m glad to hear you are in the real world cos I’m blogging from Mars.

  11. All I’m asking is for you to explain your basis of “associating x language with x persons”, or “speaking exclusively x language with x persons in public”.

    Because the example you chose – speaking Mandarin to Chinese taxi drivers – is not a very convincing one to me.

    Without additional clarifications, I am unconvinced:
    WHY this should be done
    HOW this would actually work

    Like I said, I don’t imagine even Chinese Singaporean taxi drivers know all the road names in Mandarin.

    I would actually assume that Chinese Singaporean taxi drivers, especially the middle-aged to elderly ones, would speak dialect better than Mandarin.

    In addition, it’s likely that not a single word of Mandarin needs to be spoken in order to get around in cabs in Singapore.

    So, for a social transaction that is language-neutral, that doesn’t justify the use of any specific language, you’re actually suggesting that x language be used solely because people of x ethnicity are involved.

    Taxi Uncle may reply to you in dialect. Taxi Uncle may be Peranakan. Taxi Uncle may reply to you in a delightful Mandarin-English-Teochew patois. If Taxi Uncle is younger, he’d probably reply in a Mandarin-English mix with a slight predominance in whichever language he’s more proficient.

    This goes the same for every other social interaction I can imagine with Singaporeans, regardless of race or language.

    I’m not sure why we need to insist on using Mandarin to speak to certain groups of Singaporeans, solely based on the colour of their skin.

    Maybe we want to go back to the drawing board and use a different example than taxi driver uncles? I’m just saying it’s a poor example that doesn’t illustrate or justify teh general principle you’re proposing.

    You should be grateful people are pointing out the little flaws in the details of your model – and work together to improve it, instead of pointing fingers. I don’t bother critiquing models that I don’t want to see improved or refined, you know.

  12. Yes I am grateful for people critiquing my arguments. Since you say you are critiquing because you want to see it improved, I will take you at your word and retract what I said previously. My apologies if I sounded defensive.

    How did we get distracted by taxi uncles? My bad probably for bringing up that example. I had blogged about my wife and I each speaking to our daughter in different languages in order to make her effectively bilingual. This is different from what many parents — who are usually of the SAME language background — who try to mix languages in the hope that their kids will respond in the language they are spoken to. I’ve seen much evidence that this does not work. I can’t be sure my method will work, but I’m experimenting with something different from what doesn’t work. If you know of a better way, do let me know.

  13. There has to be some longitudinal, cross-cultural, large population studies on 2nd and 3rd language acquisition strategies somewhere, perhaps on google scholar or some offline journal?

    That way, we can build on a wealth of established evidence in identifying and choosing strategies that may have a better chance of working, instead of doing this hit-and-miss.

    It’s a courageous thing to experiment on our own children with something different from what doesn’t work, but they’re not going to be too thankful if it doesn’t work at all, or if we’re going to apologise to them a few decades down the road that while the intention was good, the execution in need of some refinement… This puts us no better than our own leaders and their oftentimes misguided social experiments.

  14. I think nobody gets anywhere in future without knowing how we got here, and that everyone is overlooking a very important angle for the teaching of Chinese.

    I suggest that the real problem with the teaching of Chinese may not be in terms of method, but the cultural ballast that is attached to the teaching of Chinese.

    Here’s a little bit of history to why this whole Chinese debate still dogs us.

    First of all, the origins of the bilingual/bicultural elite issue.

    After the series of defeats that the old Chinese elite (Those who founded Nantah for example) suffered politically, the PAP had to make concessions to this demographic that they had thus disenfranchised so far in order to maintain the legitimacy of their rule.

    This concession was the SAP (Special Assistance Plan) School programme. It fundamentally destroyed traditional vernacular Chinese schooling in Singapore BUT it allowed the old Chinese elite their say in the body politic in terms of crafting and designing educational policy. The PAP in terms would gain their goal of producing the “bicultural elite” needed to maintain the status quo in Singapore at a time when the political debate was framed in terms of “Asian Values”.

    The SAP school programme, that was supposed to produce the “bicultural elite” that LKY hoped for, backfired in part due to the large autonomy that each school possessed, there was no such thing as a singular SAP school culture. The rankings for the schools also differed widely. Maris Stella ranked 33rd nationally while The Chinese High School (my alma mater) always ranked 2nd or 3rd. My brother went to River Valley High School: the teaching methods differed greatly from Chinese High. Dunman, Anglican and CHIJ St Nicks, all share very different school cultures from each other, and from TCHS. In the end higher-end neighborhood schools like Bukit Panjang Govt High for example, sometimes ranked even higher than SAP schools.

    With that in mind also, we have to look at greater political changes in Singapore. What was, for example, the political background behind most of the old Chinese elites?

    During the “glory days” of Nantah, the Chinese elite tended to have a very Communitarian, naive, “Malayan Socialist” oriented vision of society that just could not fit in with the realities of governing Singapore and the realities of life. My alma mater being Chinese High, I remembered a teacher who would tell us about far-off events like the Allies’ sacking of Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion and remind us all that to be Westernized was to follow the rule of “bandits”. Such was the mindset you were implanted with in SAP schools by the teachers.

    Their worldviews were fundamentally shaped by the legacies of the May Fourth Movement and the anticolonial struggle: and these formed their cultural ballast. Have you ever seen a Chinese textbook in Singapore? Especially at the secondary level, there are generous inclusions of works by leftist Chinese writers like Lu Xun, Ba Jin, Mao Dun, and older Chinese elites like Nanyang Siang Pau edtior Lian Shi Sheng. They are preachy, moralistic and overly serious. Honestly, not a lot of fun. People do not like being talked to and lectured on how to live, how to behave, how to BE Chinese. Is it any surprise that whole generations did not grow up liking Chinese culture or having a favorable stance towards “Asian values”? I think not. On subconscious level, that sort of preachiness and moralizing I think turned a lot of people off. Nobody finds it hip, cool or “happening” to be left in a pile of anachronisms.

    On the other hand, Singapore globalized so quickly, and we were so inundated with Anglo-American pop culture, that I believe that had a big part to do with the comparative success of English in Singapore.

    My suggestion is this: the greatest tool to get people to pursue a language, any language, is power. Hard power and soft power.

    Larger than any social force, Singaporeans are ultimate followers and love to pursue trends. I sincerely believe that the relative success of English in Singapore was in large part due to the success of Anglo-American cultural and economic power worldwide.

    Singaporeans pick up the language that allows them to work in Anglo-American banks, understand Hollywood movies, popular songs, and popular economic and social texts. China being poor for nearly the entire 20th century, simply could not have that kind of cultural power. Hong Kong and Taiwan, despite being impressive signallers of economic growth, were simply small fry next to the might of Hollywood, Anglo-American economic power, and the allure of Western liberal democratic values they represented (and of course were also suppressed in this part of the world).

    MM Lee is however right about the use of multimedia. But it’s important how this is done as well.

    If you want Singaporeans to pick up Chinese, it’s simple, show them more examples of Chinese soft power. Import more PRC movies, watch more PRC cartoons (they’re getting better), read more PRC comic books (there are a few good ones already). They must listen to Jay Chou and Zhang Zhen Yue with the same kind of fervor they do for Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. The fact that Chinese soft power still has its limits and has nowhere approached the dynamism of Anglo-American soft power is going to a problem we will run into, but such an approach will only be a minor hindrance to Singaporean attempts to learn Chinese once they are exposed to Chinese soft power.

    The reason why Chinese has become an issue again is simply due to the sudden rise of China, and the fact that the Anglo-American West is now in a very, very deep funk economically. This was not a scenario that was present at the start of the bilingual era.

    The sudden economic growth of China was not a foregone conclusion at the time bilingualism was implemented, and the reasons were more cultural and social, than economic. It is now that we have come to realize the defects, and the limits, of such a policy.

  15. hnming – Thanks for sharing. I agree that soft power is much more powerful than hard power in winning hearts and minds. But I would hesitate to actively import PRC (excl Taiwan and HK) culture the way we’ve imported American pop culture. We’ve already seen the negative effects of American pop culture in not just Singapore but America itself. We should not make the same mistake. That said, it is not for the govt to decide what culture gets let in and what doesn’t. We Singaporeans must be proud enough about our local culture, and determined enough to strengthen it.

    While I think it is critically important that Singaporeans (including non-Chinese) learn to communicate in languages other than English, we should not assume that the US and Europe are going to disappear tomorrow, and China is going to be the next superpower. In all likelihood, we will never see China taking over the West in our lifetime. Hence, English should still be the primary language for us. In fact, many PRC Chinese are working hard at learning English, to the point where some analysts have speculated that China will one day be the largest English speaking country in the world.

  16. The interesting thing is that the Chinese don’t expect the rest of the world to lose a few generations of young minds on the very troublesome and difficult task of Mandarin literacy.

    I find it a very significant concession and tacit admission, that the Chinese prefer to learn English. Presumably the Chinese find picking up English to a reasonable level of literacy takes a far shorter time than the rest of the world (or even the Chinese themselves) picking up Mandarin.

    Personally, I’d like to see the Chinese language complete the reformation that began with pinyin and simplified characters. Lu Xun and even Chairman Mao and Premier Chou realised that the reforms they made was just a halfway house to a fully-realised new Chinese writing system.

    The Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and even Mongols (in other words, all the former satellites of the ancient Chinese cultural/hegemonic system) have abandoned Chinese characters for easier systems that don’t require decades of painful rote learning to work towards functional literacy.

    I predict the soft power of China and the globalisation of Mandarin learning will only come about after a second reform of its writing system.

  17. I agree. But I can just hear the howls of protest from the purists who don’t want to see any dilution of their language, even if it is for pragmatic reasons.

  18. Hi Gerald,
    As you know I was also from ACS.
    Only after I started working did I know how important Chinese was.
    My patients from Indonesia/Malaysia/China/Taiwan/Mandarin-speaking S’poreans connect better to Chinese speaking doctors.
    Some even tell me, the other Dr X is good but cannot speak Chinese and hence cannot communicate well ( and that’s why they come see me for future specialist care)!
    I learnt Mandarin from other Chinese speaking doctors and even Besta digital dictionaries ( I don’t own Besta shares) until I was able to be interviewed in Chinese on Primetime Mandarin program and able to give public talks in Chinese!
    Granted it is not as smooth as I want it to be but at least correct meanings and terms are conveyed!
    For politicians like yourself, Chinese is indispensble and unavoidable if you want to make impacts!

  19. Hi Gerald,

    As an anecdotal story, I was at a clinic this morning to see my doctor for the knee injury (yes the same injury). A man was at my side commenting on The Sunday Times front page news about using english as a aid to teach chinese. Well, that man’s reaction was typical of the masses, he snorted and said, isn’t that diluting the chinese language and making it less chinese.

    I disagree with MM Lee saying that a person can only master one language well and not two. He has always placed a limit on what the human mind can achieve based on what one is born with. He was wrong then on chinese, is he right now on it? I doubt so.


  20. Dr Huang – I’m inspired by your achievement! I must get one of them Besta digital dictionaries. Yes I agree that politicians and missionaries must learn the language of the people. If I could I would learn Malay too (actually I tried, but didn’t work out too well either).

    Chih-Yang – I agree that it’s possible to learn >1 language well. It just requires the right environment and encouragement.

  21. I’m not sure exactly why but this weblog is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

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