Bilingualism – My Woes Then & Now

One of the biggest struggles I had when I was in school was mastering Mandarin. Let me rephrase that, it was learning Mandarin. I need to be very careful here, as I’ve had sticks and stones thrown at me for being so lousy at the language and forgetting my Chinese roots and being a total disgrace to the race. (Gosh… it’s just the language that I have difficulties in, I still look Chinese, I cook Chinese, I don’t even have an English name, for goodness sake!)

Anyway, when I was in school… my parents sent me to a Chinese Pre-primary (doesn’t exist anymore now, it’s a foundation year to Primary School, like K2) which led me to a full-fledged Chinese based primary school. Guess what? I’m really thankful they did that! Their reason was, since no one in the family spoke Mandarin (my dad took English/Malay, my mum learnt Mandarin, but doesn’t speak it), they figured it would be good to immerse their daughter in a Chinese school, so that some good would come out of it. They foresaw that if I went to a regular primary school, my mandarin would have been a greater struggle.

To put things in perspective, this was in the early 80s. Thank God my parents did that! You see, because of the highly successful and very much crticised and cursed bilingual programme in Singapore, entry into a secondary school is based on all subjects including Mandarin, and you have to hit a minimum grade for Mandarin to enter uni! So I’m grateful for this ‘forced’ immersion.

BUT ohhh what a struggle it was! I tried my very best. But from a tender Primary 3, getting zero for Chinese Spelling was not surprising. My parents engaged a Chinese tutor for me, I was drilled to memorise the characters, the key phrases and suitable idioms. And the natural talent of finding loopholes, I learnt how to guess meanings of words so that I could complete test papers. And surprise surprise, in Primary 6, I was selected to do Chinese at First Language!

Was life easier then? Of course not! Now there’s more stuff to memorise, more spelling and the words are tougher. I hated the language then. There was absolutely no joy in learning, everything was pure hard work. We had no cutesy games or apps to entice learning, things that were outside curriculum were Chinese Newspapers, Chinese Novels and Poems. And there was no hanyu pinyin to guide you along.

So to cut the long story short, I got an A for my first language, and A for second language (we had to take TWO PSLE papers!!) my brain must have been so fried, all that memory work just went kaput. I made it to the affiliated secondary school, which by the way, is a Chinese school too! hahahahaah!!

By then, I took up Chinese as second language, and there were only about 60 of us. (the rest of the 9 classes took it as a first language) I remember when we took our O Levels June paper, my best friend and I (obviously with similar Chinese standards) did amazingly well. Our grade was B3!!! We told ourselves we can give up Chinese now! All our friends outside told us the same.

But no no no… the school intervened. There were about 7 of us who didn’t obtain at least an A2. We were summoned to the Vice-Principal’s office, he expressed his disappointment. Told us to try again at the end of the year. Said we should aim for that distinction, blah blah blah… So we did retake our Chinese Paper. And I’m not sure what we got, cos the slip said the better of the two paper’s grade was B3. (we possibly did worse cos we really stopped memorising and practising, and focused on the other 7 subjects we had!!)

You can imagine my smile on the face when Channel News Asia showed replays of the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s speech on Bilingualism in Nov 2009: “We started the wrong way. We insisted on ting xie (listening), mo xie (dictation) — madness! We had teachers who were teaching in completely-Chinese schools. And they did not want to use any English to teach English-speaking children Chinese and that turned them off completely.”

I was a product of that and at the same time, I’m grateful that I learnt Mandarin (just really really hated the journey of learning it). So why am I relating this story today? Cos Nicole and Nathan are going through what I did. A very much diluted version since things are more flexi now, and more fun. But the spelling list is still very long and dreadful looking.

Am I going to pull them out of from taking Chinese as First Language? Am I going to complain about ting xie and mo xie (even Mr. Lee himself said it’s MADNESS!) Nah… they just have to build some resilience, grit their teeth, memorise like mad, get through this till P5, when the school decides if they are up to it to continue. Looking at how things are going, there’s a very high chance, they will take it at 2nd language. (And they have to stay in this Chinese school for the same reasons my parents put me in!)

My heart breaks when I see them memorising the words and phrases. (it breaks more when they memorise chunks for dictation!) but no pain, no gain. 🙂 You can’t beat the system, you just have to join the system. Nicole learns her dictation via songs now (she creates some melody to fit in those long phrases), we read the textbook daily to ensure recognition (thank God the articles in textbook at more interesting now!). I wish I can do more, but right now we have no choice but to focus on the academics. As much as I would want her to love the language, I don’t wish my kids to have low self esteem if she constantly gets lectured in school for having bad spelling marks.

Ending off with the Primary 3 spelling list… sigh…

Chinese Spelling List P3


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