Today’s kindergarten, tomorrow’s world

Education Minister Ng Eng Hen said that with the globalised world requiring more people to interact across borders, English and Chinese are becoming even more important. He renewed the emphasis on acquiring a better standard of English. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to escape the CMIO mindset. Full essay.

15 Responses to “Today’s kindergarten, tomorrow’s world”

  1. 1 liew kai khiun 25 September 2009 at 17:20

    Dear YB,

    I have an Indian Singaporean who was grumbling how his daughter had to learn Tamil even the language is rather alien to them. He has complained how this has disadvantaged his daughter compared to her classmates who are learning more “important” languages. I have always argued for the deracialisation of language learning where we should leave it to parents to choose among the three main mother tongues where the MOE is infrastructured to teach.

    Although there would be some Chinese parents who would opt for what they think is the easier option in Bahasa Melayu (which is not a bad outcome), I suspect that the greater fear of the authorities would be the exodus of Malay students to Chinese language classes. This outcome of ethnic Chinese kids learning Malay and Malay kids studying mandarin would outrage reactionary elements in Singapore society the PAP government, which unfortunately relies on for its legitimacy. Under the guise of multiracialism, the Singapore state has crystallized the divide and rule concept so strongly that it needs these racial boundaries to perpetuate its hegemony over society.

    Till date, these language policies that you have highlighted have indicated that we still cannot be Singaporeans even after 44 years of nation-building.

    As for the command of the English language in the republic, well…if you have a mediocre, uninspiring, conservative and inarticulate political leadership, can the government expect anything better from the young? When you have a repressive, parochial and unimaginative structure, can we expect anyone to speak properly?

  2. 2 Anonymous 26 September 2009 at 09:29

    You did not spell it out directly (for reasons only you know best), but your “opting” advocacy obviously has this implication: “Opting” to study language B means studying language B INSTEAD of language A i.e. ABANDONING formal school study of language A so as to REPLACE it with language B. It is not about studying language B IN ADDITION to language A. Such implication is obvious due to curriculum time constraint, ability to master 3 languages etc.

    A native language is not called a mother tongue for no reason – for those people with roots, with culture i.e. normal people from normal countries such as Germany, France, Japan, Korea, in fact everywhere except perhaps Singapore, their mother’s tongue is like their mother – it evokes memories of their mother, is a link to their roots, their childhood, their cultural lineage, their very existence etc.

    Thus, your “opting” advocacy amounts to this suggestion: “Hey, people should have the right to opt who their mother (mother tongue) should be. This Chinese woman (Chinese language) is going to be a money-making person (language) in the next 20 years. So people should have the right to opt for this Chinese woman (Chinese language) to be their mama (mother tongue) IN REPLACEMENT of their own mother (mother tongue). But of course, let me say that such a prospect depends a lot on how the world unfolds in the decades to come; it is hardly guaranteed. So if it turned out that it is an Indian woman (Indian language) that is going to be money-making, then Singaporeans should opt to be filial as a son should to this Indian woman (Indian language) INSTEAD of to their own mother (mother tongue)”

    What a disgusting way to make money – a way where one’s mother (mother tongue) is an option, to be opted-in or opted-out depending on how the world is going to turn out in future! Is that how you pick whom to call your mother (mother tongue)? Clearly nonsensical!

    But nah, you won’t get it, because the above argument rest on the premise that mother tongue = mother, as elaborated in my 2nd para. And this concept is alien to you. For someone like you who has already abandon your (forefather’s) mother tongue and adopted a foreign language as your new mother tongue, you probably won’t understand it. But wait, I made a mistake. You are not the one who has abandon your forefather’s mother tongue, are you? Your dad had already done that on your behalf, hadn’t he? Or was it your granddad? Anyhow, clearly your ancestor spoke Chinese – be it Mandarin or Teocheow or whichever one of the numerous Chinese languages. Thus clearly, it was someone in your family line – maybe your dad, or his dad, or his dad’s dad – who decided that Chinese is a shit language and English is the superior one and so English shall become the mother tongue of your family. Whatever. That’s your family’s business.

    But now, having no strong feelings for the concept of mother tongue, you now advocate for everyone to adopt your attitude of opting for a mother tongue based on monetary prospect! No, maybe I am wrong. You are NOT advocating that! English is now your “mother” tongue and you are NOT compromising on English – it shall always be your mother (mother tongue) and you want all Singaporeans to have it as their mother (mother tongue) too. What you are advocating is that Chinese, Tamil, Malay are all just not our mother (mother tongues). They are foreigners/foreign lanauges, to be opted-in or opted-out depending on monetary prospect. Right? Ha! I get it. English is mother. No opting in or out for it. The other 3 languages are “opt-able”! haha!

  3. 3 esther 26 September 2009 at 09:58

    yb, i think this point has already been made before > That there are non-chinese parents who want their children to learn mandarin as a second language. But MOE does not allow this.. there are some exceptions and you’ve got to jump through hoops and badger those ppl at moe..It’s not as simple as telling the school to enrol your non-chinese child into mandarin classes. So these parents turn to private tutors and pay extra to have their child learn a language that will hopefully be beneficial to them. That is if the chinese employers dont find other excuses to not hire a non-chinese.. 😛

    I dont think its racist, I mean you do what you need to do in order to survive and as a parent, I want my child to cope with the realities of the working world in the future.

  4. 4 Anonymous 26 September 2009 at 10:20

    Long Long ago, Switzerland has 4 official languages: German, French, Italian, Romansh. One day, a crazy king ruled over Switzerland. For various political reasons (eg. the German-speakers support his political opponent rather than him. French is the language spoken in hostile neighbouring countries etc) and personal reasons (eg. he is educated in English in England), this king relegated these 4 languages to the backwater and transformed a foreign language, English, into Switzerland’s one and only de facto official language.

    Needless to say, the transformation brought severe hardship to the citizens of Switzerland especially the children, for they now have to study in school in a language foreign to them! To make it worse, the ruthless king imposed a drastic rule: Failure to pass the new official language means no access to higher education! As a result, many Switzerland peasants were deprived of a higher education and are now uncompetitive in the new economy. The people of Switzerland are also known to be very lousy in expressing themselves, in articulating their thoughts, in the arts etc, since they are neither here nor there in their language skill. The people of Switzerland even speaks very ugly forms of English called Germanlish, Frenchish, Italish, and Romanshish respectively depending on their ethnic background. A laughing stock to the world. But many citizen of Switzerland do not think so. They want Germanlish, Frenchish, Italish and Romanshish to be their national language, because it’s a language that makes them feel “homely”, “right at home”, a language that endears them to Switzerland. In contrast, they can no longer feel “homely” in what used to be Switzerland’s 4 official languages anymore.

    Anyway, parents panicked in view of the new education policy. But such is the human spirit – after 1 generation, the crazy king’s obedient citizens adapted. The children, who had all grown up, started speaking the new official language at home to their own children. From a low 20% in 1980, there are now more than 50% of parents who speak the new official language.

    Slowly, some people in Switzerland started to forget that before this crazy king came along, English was a foreign language and the official languages are German, French, Italian and Romansh. One forgetful person even came up with this recommendation: Every Switzerland citizen shall study English with no option to opt out. However, German, French, Italian and Romansh are all opt-able languages that no Switzerland citizen should feel obliged to take solely on account of whether his father is of German heritage or French heriage etc.

    But this of course is a fairy tale. Today, Switzerland still has four official languages: French, German, Italian, Romansh. English is still a foreign language. The country did not crumple under “disunity” due to that. Nor did it become “economically uncompetitive” due to that. Quite the contrary. The people are highly educated, being able to understand what their teacher teaches in their native languages. The people are articulate, able to express themselves well. They are very proud of their heritage too. They would probably think you have something wrong in your head, if you tell them English should not be a foreign language but a non-negotiable non-opt-able compulsory language, whereas French, German, Italian and Romansh are “opt-able” languages that anybody can opt-in or opt-out of, with no regards to family ethnicity or heritage or tradition or culture.

    How is Singapore doing? Have we achieved the “swiss standard”?

  5. 5 Paul 26 September 2009 at 10:38

    Good column, YB. It’s wide-ranging, so a few random thoughts.

    1) I teach at a local university, and am by and large unimpressed with the standard of English even amongst Singapore’s academic high achievers. At the same time, I am often struck by how systematically the same mistakes are made. What I don’t see is an equally systematic attempt to address those specific – and common – errors at earlier points in the students’ education.

    2) Is there any more compact an illustration of current language-teaching shortcomings that the Minister’s use of the the acronym MTL to refer to ‘Mother Tongue Language’? Is an obvious point, but worth reiterating: English is instrumentalised as the language of administration and business; the pleasurable, inventive and affective use of language remains ghettoised in Singlish; and the ‘Mother Tongue’ concept lays claim to a fantasy of origin, belonging and authenticity, even if that isn’t how the students see it. The way we talk and think about language needs to change if language use is to change.

    3) A (familiar but persistent) case in point. YB, I’m not sure you do your own argument much good by persisting in the use of the word ‘race’ throughout. As you have yourself demonstrated elsewhere (for instance, in ‘Who is Malay’?) ‘race’ is in many cases a misnomer. The very use of the term reinforces divisions, since many people who would ordinarily consider themselves to be quite different from each other – such as those whose forebears came from many different parts of South Asia, who speak different languages, who practice different religions, or none – cluster together under the term ‘Indian’ only when defined ‘externally’ against other such groups – which may or may not have a more coherent genetic, cultural or historical basis for self-identifying as something like ‘Chinese’. I wonder how re-writing the article without condoning the word ‘race’ would change the analysis – it might, for instance, enable you to avoid the use of the term ‘them’ in a phrase like ‘Open the door for them’, which implies an ‘Us’ you may not normally subscribe to.

  6. 6 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 16:05

    Anonymous (and the two Anonymous above are with the same IP address, so probably the same person) – Why this inflated imagery of “mother”? Your arguments are crucially dependent on that inflated imagery, on the notion that a metaphorical umbilical cord should never be severed.
    You said what my forefathers did in choosing a language for themselves and their families was “That’s your family’s business.” Then you argue against giving people options, through the derisive example: “Hey, people should have the right to opt who their mother (mother tongue) should be.”
    Do you see a contradiction?

  7. 7 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 16:08

    A reader wrote in by email with this thought: “Actually i think the continued segregation of languages by race is something that is perpetuated not by the chinese in govt but by the non chinese.”
    And in case you’re wondering, this reader is of mixed race.

  8. 8 yawningbread 26 September 2009 at 16:12

    Paul – it’s true I have serious reservations about the whole notion of “race” as used in Singapore. However, in this article, I felt I was dealing with perceptions, rather than the complex reality of ethnicity. It was simpler to stick to the perceptual groupings (however badly founded) rather than bring in another ton of detail. I appreciate your pointing this out in a comment, so people are alerted to read with care.

    • 9 Ero 1 October 2009 at 23:35

      YB, i think most of your articles are getting rather stale and beginning to be emotionally-ridden (to your own benefit only). Your blog use to be my daily nightcap but of late it is almost painful to even read.

  9. 10 Cymric 27 September 2009 at 12:39

    We humans have a very deeply rooted instinct to divide ourselves in to various groups. “Us” and “Them”. Ourselves, our gender, Our family, our nation, our race etc vs outsiders. I suppose it is a legacy from our tribal days where everyone in the tribe are closely related by blood and thus by helping “Us” and discriminate against others, we are in fact helping our own genes against other genes.

    Anyway, in order to discriminate against outsiders, we need some way of differentiating ourselves from them and we do that by our physical appearances (eg: skin colors), behaviour, culture and languages. Language is probably the 2nd most important differntiating factor after physical appearance as it is the medium by which the tribe’s behavior norms and culture are passed from one generation to the next.

    Just like the existance of gays threatening the gender divide between man and women, a person abandoning his/her native language will threaten the divide between the group and outsiders.

    If you do not speak your tribe’s language, then you had diluted what it means to be a member of your tribe and in the long run there will be less and less boundary, and the tribe will cease to exist. In this sense, you are indeed a traitor to those who instinctively perfer to retain the identity of the tribe.

  10. 11 noon 27 September 2009 at 17:39

    Being in the lucky position of learning Mandarin as my “mother tongue” since kindergarten despite not having a drop of Chinese blood in my ancestry, I have to grudgingly concede the point in your last paragraph. My Mandarin is hopeless and I don’t understand any dialects, but it’s still afforded me so much more mobility that it almost seems unfair to the others who couldn’t. It could be something as simple as understanding shop signs at one glance…

  11. 12 Anonymous 28 September 2009 at 05:04

    What “metaphorical umbilical cord”? By this logic, if you take care of your aged mother and still maintain a close tie to her, are you an immature little boy who is still wet behind the ears and still has a “metaphorical umbilical cord” which you are not able to shake off despite more than half a century of existence on earth? Conversely, if you abandon your aged mother and sever all ties with her and call a rich woman “mama” instead, does it mean you are finally a mature man who has cut your “metaphorical umbilical cord”?

    It is simply not ok to opt-in or opt-out one’s mother. Period. “metaphorical umbilical cord” is no excuse for such unfilial opting!

    Likewise, your mother tongue is like your mother. It should not be open for opting. (And if you argue that it is not your mother tongue anyway, pls note that it *was* your mother tongue before your dad or dad’s dad etc threw it away. So, just apply my statement to your dad or dad’s dad etc instead.)

    Finally, there is no contradiction. “That’s your family’s business.” so long as you keep it to your family i.e. does not involve public education policy. But when you advocate it to become a public education policy, then of course it becomes my business and indeed everybody’s business because it is abt *public* education which will impact the whole society!

    I am not sure if I understand what you mean. If a person sever all ties with his mother on account that his mother is penniless and has a poor image etc, are you going to excuse such a person and instead explain that those who admonish him are “those who instinctively prefer to retain the identity of the tribe.”? Any admonishment is clearly due to the one’s moral value being diff from those who did such abandonment. Where does tribal instinct come in?

    Similarly, if one is not “money-face”, one’s mother tongue always remains one’s mother tongue and never up for opting. Conversely, if one is money-face, then one’s family’s “mother tongue” can change from one language to another a few times within a few generation, depending on which language dominates or is predicted to dominate the world. Now others may show respect or disrespect for such tenacity/fickle-mindedness depending on their own moral values with regard to whether being “money-face” is desirable or disgusting. I see no tribal instinct involved.

  12. 13 Anonymous 28 September 2009 at 16:40

    By the CMIO model, I am racially Chinese. My family spoke Cantonese when I was young. Those were the days when TV showed Cantonese dramas. I remember hating my enforced “mother tongue” of Mandarin even at kindergarten levels. Mandarin was taught as if one spoke it at home. In reality, Mandarin sounded as confusing to me as Malay. Pasar Malay was then the de-facto language that cut across all races at that time. If I had a choice, I would have learn English and Malay in school to be able to communicate to a wide group of Singaporeans, and learn my real mother tongue of Cantonese from my home environment.

    As luck would have it, in the 90’s, Hong Kong developed as a regional business centre and the numerous Chinese migrant communities worldwide speak Cantonese. Thus, at some of my previous workplaces, it was Cantonese (not Mandarin) that I used for workplace communication locally and internationally. English was the other widely-used cross-cultural business language. At my current workplace, not speaking Malay is an occasional disadvantage.

    My example shows 2 points.

    1. Mandarin is and was never my mother-tongue. To insist otherwise of the numerous “racially Chinese” children is nothing sort of the Mandarin chauvinism.

    2. It is hard to predict what one’s child would need at work as an adult when he/she is only a toddler. Therefore, instilling a respect for all languages and adaptability may be more pragmatic then to enforce a particular language. Then, as and when needed, your child can learn new languages if needed for his/her career. Thus, I am all for choice. Let the child choose whichever combination of 2 languages that he/she wishes to learn in school.

    IMHO, even Singlish should be respected. It plays the role abandoned by Pasar Malay in Singaporean dialogues.

  13. 14 YCK 29 September 2009 at 16:54

    As I understand, the term MTL is not really used by the government in any rigourous sense. This may be unfortunate as it affects the framing of the problems we encountered in education today.

    Should we see “mother tounge” as referring to a language one grows up speaking without necessary formal teaching, a first language, then in fact most Chinese families have English as their mother tongue today.

    Many citizens continue to hold the “official” understanding of MTL, though quite a number of posts here are more enlightened =) But more than a matter of semantics, it affects the way we implement a bilingual education system. After all, teaching a real mother tongue is different from teaching a “second language”, and one cannot just “chose” one’s mother tongue on reaching schooling age. I suspect this “fuzziness” is partly responsible for the move to MLT syllabus B.

    To go off at a tangent, I think Singapore English, including Singlish, and our standard of English are dealt with quite shoddily here. They should be discussed separtely, being distinct the MTL topic, they require more space to fully develop.

    Singapore English is still an evolving entity. Who is to standardize it? Should Singlish be seen as a variant of the language? Is it really just bad English or does it follow clearly defined linguistic rules? Is it bad English passed down from the previous generation who spoke it as a non-mother tongue, or is the general lack of conscientiousness for languages among Singaporeans that is also responsible? In this case, are certain bad “habits” being lost as it turns into a mother tongue for the younger ones? Obviously these an other questions will be interesting to address.

    Lastly, I am relieved that no one referred to any Chinese language (Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien etc.) as dialects. They are not. Firstly, they are not mutually intelligable between exclusive speakers of these languages. Mandarin was anointed as a national language with the founding of modern China, and not really a mother tongue to most Han Chinese two generations ago. It is ironical how it displaced other mother tongues only to be in turn dethroned by English. I suspect the hasty switches between languages from one generation to the next may be partly responsible for the general sloppiness in language use in Singapore.

  14. 15 yawningbread 30 September 2009 at 13:43

    YCK’s comment above highlights one distinction which we should bear in mind – that between Singapore English and Singlish. They are two different things, and any discussion of language in Singapore would be hopelessly confused if we lumped them together.
    I would define Singapore English as a variant of Standard English, meaning that it observes grammatical rules and most usage conventions, but it has its own accent, unique expressions and some additional usage conventions (that do not flout grammar rules). For example we tend to say “Where are you staying” when we mean “Where do you live?” We tend to say “I’ve eaten already” when we mean “Yes, I’ve had my dinner”. We say “The lift doesn’t stop on the sixth storey” when we mean “The lift doesn’t stop on the sixth floor”. We can live with these variations since the meaning would still be clear (if a little strange) to other English speakers and they are more or less in keeping with grammar and syntax rules. We can even live with some odd pronunciation, e.g. saying Col’league instead of Colleague’.
    Singlish is the patois form involving admixture of other languages, their grammar rules and syntax. With respect to the above examples, Singlish would come out as “Where you stay, ah?”, “I eat already”, “The lift don’t stop on sixth storey one.” Singlish presents difficulty to other English speakers.

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