The agony of learning Chinese in Singapore

The past few days saw accounts in the newspapers of some people recounting the terrible time they had trying to learn Chinese. One described how rebellious he was during Chinese lessons. His teacher got a stroke, and he attributed it to his rebelliousness. Another family seeing their two sons struggling with Chinese, and spending so much time on the language to the exclusion of other activities uprooted themselves and left the country.

Clearly, learning Chinese left many traumatised. Some had to contend with facing an uncertain future because they didn’t make the grade.

Learning Chinese, even for the able ones, left many jittery. I recall some of my relatives’ children, who were above average in the subject, filled wth anxiety whenever there was spelling and dictation the following day. Countless hours were filled memorising supposedly beautiful phrases, and practising writing the characters.

I’m glad the authorities have come to realise that with the present generation you can’t teach Chinese the way it was taught before. This is the generation of Facebook, Twitter, the Internet, SMS and IM. This is the generation that delights largely in visual and musical distractions.

Hopefully, the present generation of students will have a more pleasant experience learning Chinese.

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9 Responses to “The agony of learning Chinese in Singapore”

  1. I am not, for the moment, convinced that learning English is a bed of roses either. So can we have visual and musical lessons in English? Perhaps schools are already incorporating Britney Spears in the syllabus.

  2. Is there agony in leanring Mandarin? Not that what I can observe. Today so many Singapore Chinese especially teenagers communciate from “start to finish” in Mandarin with a few words of English thrown in. You walk into an outpatient clinic and if you are Chinese, chanes are a young medical staff will communciate in mandarin with you, thinking that all Chinese people in Singapore must speak mandarin nothing else. Have you walk to a JC like Temasek Junior College – Chinese students speak mandarin all the time. Go to a supermarket or a wet market, every aunty and uncles thinks just because you are Chinese, you speak Mandarin

    So it goes to show “Speak Mandarin Campaign” was successful and nothing has gone wrong with the teaching of Mandarin in schools. No need to lower standrads not exempt students from passing Mandarin in school.

  3. Peter, the problem compounded by influx of migrants from the mainland. That day I was outside a Japanese restaurant and asked a Chinese waiter a question in English. My English must be so ‘terok’ that he asked me to repeat in Mandarin.

    I’m very sure our English competency is lower than our Chinese. Mispronunciation, bad grammar, Singlish thrown in, I’m guilty of them myself. But Chinese are more forgiving because even mainlanders may not speak putonghua better than us due to dialect habits.

  4. There’s a significant difference between spoken and written Mandarin which is definitely much harder than English.

  5. The government is placing less emphasis on written Mandarin (according to them).

    Realistically written Mandarin is much much easier than English, when you consider nobody writes with a pen anymore. Nowadays, Chinese input systems can autocomplete based on hanyu pinyin initials. For example, you type ‘xjp’ and 新加坡 will appear. With a good idiom/proverb/vocab bank, using IM and social network is self-reinforcing because you are learning/revising as you type.

  6. This seems to be the trend. Soon people will be able only to recognise Chinese characters but not to write them. Over time, Chinese characters might be ditched in favour of hanyu pinyin. Vietnam once used Chinese characters but ditched it in favour of a romanised form of writing.

  7. Considering our Chinese ancestors mostly boh-tak-chek, not a big deal in not able to write, haha. At least equip children with reading and communication skills. But make sure they know how to write their Chinese name, lah.

  8. I think Singaporean Chinese students should Not be exempted from learning/passing Chinese.

    (a) The syllabus and (b) the way it is taught would need to be changed to suit the changing times. The method of teaching and attitude of the teachers make a big difference. In secondary school I was treated like a hopeless case that should be content just to pass Chinese. Indeed, I was happy just to get a C5/C6 for my O levels. In JC however, the teachers did help to spark my interest in the language and I got a B3 at A levels.

    I am grateful that I can speak Mandarin. In the course of my work, I have to speak or at least understand Mandarin on the phone. I depend on Chinese colleagues (from China) to translate Korean/Japanese – some of them speak excellent Mandarin and Korean but can’t speak English so if I can’t understand Mandarin, I’d need 2 translators! (We don’t always have someone who can translate directly from Korean/Japanese to English).

    People would be able to survive without being able to speak Mandarin but work opportunities would be limited.

    • Your experience shows that igniting the interest of students in the language is a vital aspect of teaching of the language. After admission of missteps by MM, changes are in the offing which should cheer our students. A knowledge of Mandarin is indeed an asset these days.


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