Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reflecting on the issue of the Weighting of Mother Tongue Language in PSLE

The Education Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed in an interview that the weighting of mother tongue language in PSLE could be reduced. It provoked an instant and tremendous reaction. Teachers, parents and working adults spoke up eloquently either for or against the change. The newspapers were flooded with letters. There are merits to both sides of the argument. The subsequent announcement that the weighting would remain brought either relief or dismay to many.

The whole incident merely served to highlight the extent to which examinations has taken over education in Singapore. The conviction of the MTL teachers that a reduction in the weighting of MTL in the PSLE would lead to a significant decline in students’ desire to learn MTL spoke volumes about the state of our education. (If the teachers do not know, who would?) The letters from parents attested the importance placed on and the stress caused by the PSLE.

Personally I would have preferred that there is no PSLE, that all students proceed to secondary education without streaming, much like the system in Finland, as we have suggested in the Reform Party’s education seminar in Jan 2010. This would make much of the problems identified by the various stakeholders disappear. However, there is no point indulging in wishful thinking, since we are still some time away from our vision of forming an alternative government. So, accepting the framework as it is, some adjustments can and should still be done.

It appears as if this issue is now over, with the Government’s announcement that there will be no change in the weighting of MTL in PSLE. But can it really be over, when the problems faced by a segment of our student population still exist? The fact that MOE was considering a change in our PSLE weighting system showed that the extent of the problem is not negligible. Wouldn’t the problems continue to fester and occasionally flare up again? Should we be content that the will of the majority is served? Must it be a win-lose situation?

I can readily believe that there are many students struggling with MTL because I have seen the difference in my son’s command of the English and Chinese languages. He is going to be four years old soon. He speaks fluently in English but struggles to find the right words in Mandarin. (And his pronunciation is weird, you know, exactly like in TV shows when Caucasians speak mandarin.) I think he has a fairly balanced language environment. The maids speak to him in English, his grandparents speak to him in Mandarin, and my husband and I used to speak to him in both languages. The huge disparity in his command of the two languages has caused me to believe that maybe Chinese really is more difficult to learn.

I have never had that problem because I grew up in a household where nobody spoke English. I started learning my a b c only when I started school. When I took my PSLE, I took Chinese as 1st Language and English as 2nd Language. (Yes, they had those things back then.) Learning Chinese was a piece of cake! I was thunderstruck to realize that my son could become non-mandarin speaking if I let it carry on unchecked. So Tony and I started to speak to our sons in Mandarin and refused to understand the elder son if he spoke in English. (The younger son is not speaking properly yet.) Within a few months, his mandarin improved significantly. But I can now imagine how difficult it can be for the children if their parents do not speak the so-called mother tongue! It is really difficult to learn a language when you do not have the right language environment, and unrealistic to expect a higher level of proficiency solely on the basis of race.

I would want my children to learn Chinese, even if it has zero weighting in the PSLE, for both sentimental and economic reasons. The Chinese language is important to me, in ways beyond the PSLE. It is my first language in every sense of the word. Although three years of undergraduate studies in UK and years of working life has rendered my proficiency in Chinese to deteriorate to a rather pathetic state right now, it holds a special place in my heart that will never go away. As for economic reasons, who can be blind to the size of China’s growing economy? And India’s and Indonesia’s too? In 10 to 15 years’ time, when the current batch of primary students graduate and enter the workforce, how valuable would their command of their MTL be to them? So I can empathise with both those fighting to retain the status of MTL and those calling for the system to be changed to reflect changing demographics.

The problem lies in insisting on a one-size-fit-all system. Treating students with a MTL home environment and those without in the same manner is not workable. I also do not believe in squeezing a square peg into a round hole. If we can allow greater diversity in admission criteria in different schools, our education system can better serve the needs of different sections of the population. This can be done in a similar fashion to the Direct School Admissions where a small percentage of places in some schools can be set aside for admitting students on 3 best subject basis. Alternatively, set up new secondary schools that admit students on a 3 subject basis.

We can afford to loosen up on the uniformity in favour of a better fit for the different families that make up Singapore. Let the education system be one that strives to serve the needs of our population, not one that expects the population to conform to its rigours.


  1. Good post.

    The insistence on a one-size-fit-all system has deep ideological roots. It's due to the belief that there is some one "objective" measure of "merit". Moving away from a one-size-fit-all system would seem to believers in this ideology to undermine meritocracy, since to them it is obvious that the person who excels in all four subjects in "more meritorious" than the person who excels in only three.

    Of course, any kind of weightage of subjects, whether it treats each subject equally or not, sets an arbitrary standard of merit, and to take that standard as indicating one's "real" merit is incredibly naive.

  2. You son may end up to be bad in both English and Chinese. That is where most young Singaporeans end up anyway - including those who claim to be bad in Chinese. So it doesn't matter. He just have to learn at his own pace. There is no need for lower weightage for any subject.

  3. The most interesting part is parents like to go around "boasting" how their kids speak Mandarin with an "English" accent. Or do mean your child speak Mandarin with a Singlish accent? That is nothing to be proud about. But you're not the only one bragging about your child's accent though.

  4. 楼上的到底有没有读懂博主的文章?

    理智上我可以认同博主的观点,因材施教嘛!但当年学英文的痛苦,教育部也是坚持one size fits all,又有多少优秀但英文不过关的同学被牺牲掉了。幸灾乐祸地想,30年河东,30年河西啊!

  5. I agree with you. When my son was born, we told ourselves to expose him to various languages - teochew (as I think it is important to know how to speak dialect), chinese and english. Before he started his play group, he was ok with all three. but merely a few months into playgroup, he started leaning towards english - preference for english cartoons, english nursery rhymes ... I am still trying to steer him towards chinese and teochew but I find that i am slowly conversing with him in english ...

    i am also worried that he will grow to dislike chinese as i understand that in the pri sch, they will teach hanyu pinyin.

    i remembered that my chinese started deterioriting after i learnt hanyupinyin. the ability to recognise/register the chinese character is gone once that row of hanyu pin yin appeared under each chinese character :/

    i struggled in upper sec and JC ... sweating over chinese ..... i really feel that there is something wrong with the way chinese is being taught ....