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.