How should we approach mother tongue in schools?

The recent discussion on the weightage of the Mother Tongue in schools has led to much debate over the way the subject is being taught. 

While some feel that there shouldn't be such a strong emphasis on the Mother Tongue, others are concerned that reducing the weightage would in turn compromise standards. 

So what's the "appropriate" level of Mother Tongue to be taught and just how should the subject be approached in schools ? 

Lin Jiamei speaks to experts to find out. 

Dr Nicolai Volland, a German professor who is currently teaching Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, is sharing his experience on learning Chinese. 

Dr Volland feels that the standard of Mother Tongue here, in particular Chinese, should not be lowered further. 

This is what he said earlier in Mandarin. 

"Language is not easy, it is always easier to learn your own language, but the difficulty doesn't get away by lowering the standard, if you do so this will put you in a disadvantage." 

In fact, Dr Volland feels that the standard of Mother Tongue is currently too low to begin with. 

"Here you have me, a foreigner who is correcting my students' Chinese and I am also spending a substantial amount of time correcting wrongly written words, grammatical mistakes. Chinese is my fourth foreign language so this is the fifth language that I have acquired and I am not a language genius and I am not even specialising in language. So this kind of shows the problem. I think the cause of the problem is having too low a standard for mother tongue in schools currently and approaches to language pedagogy that is not appropiate towards the Singaporean students need." 

But there are those who feel that the standard of Mother Tongue now is too high. 

52-year-old Mrs Lim is a mother of 3 teenage boys. 

Chinese is the one subject her children are least interested in. 

All three of them have tuition for Chinese. 

"They put in like 75-80 percent of their time doing Chinese and they were lucky that they were strong in their English subjects and it is not like they are doing very great in that subject, like getting A* for Chinese even though they have put in so much effort, so if they were to be able to spend that amount of time doing the English subjects, I think they would have more interests in the Sciences, or even more time to play. I don't know how you go about doing that but I hope that they would not go about putting so much emphasis on Chinese." 

But this parent understands the importance of the Mother Tongue and wants to ensure that her children are not monolingual. 

It's a point which Dr Volland emphasises. 

"It puts the students at a severe disadvantage in today's modern internationalised workplace and job market. If I can draw on Germany for example, my middle school require me to acquire at between basic and advance fluency in three foreign languages." 

So yes, learning a second language is important. 

But some people are asking - can it be of lesser importance compared to other subjects? 

They feel that the Mother Tongue is perhaps difficult to master, especially since they do not have much opportunity to practise the language. 

Dr Aishah Kassim is from the Centre of Language Studies at the National University of Singapore. 

"Then what about English, then those people who are not speaking English at home can also say that they are at a disadvantage. So is Math and Science, so there is always this, what weightage is good enough?" 

Dr Aishah, who teaches Malay at NUS, recognises that it gets increasingly difficult to interest students in their Mother Tongue. 

Rather than splitting hair over the weightage, she feels that what's more important is to change the perception. 

"The whole system should be less exams oriented so that people will see that learning English or any other mother tongue is in fact acquiring a skill, not so much for you to pass the PSLE or to get into a good school." 

And there are those who argue that the issue is not over the subject per se, but rather over the teaching method. 

Dr Lee Cher Leng is a lecturer at the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore. 

"They are stressed because of how Chinese is being taught in schools and how they are being tested. The basic thing is, what is being taught is not tested and what is tested has not been taught. Singapore is a very unique situation, I think the Mother Tongue is not really Mother Tongue, in the linguistic sense of the word - in the sense that you actually grew up with the language." 

Efforts have been made to make Mother Tongue more applicable to students. 

The syllabus has also been refined. 

But are these enough to cater to the learning needs of the students? 

" There was a lot of rote learning going on. So there were a lot of complaints that this way of learning is not progressive, that students need to apply what they've learnt into real life language situation. So they flipped over and test them in comprehension that they have never seen before. For example they had to choose which phrase to put into this blank and there were four phrases. Out of these four phrases maybe they have learnt one and the other three they haven't and they are very close so sometimes even the teachers are not able to tell the difference. The teachers do not know where to begin. If you focus on the text, they are afraid of losing out on the real life language so they may as well throw away the textbook and try to grab hold of all sorts of real life language to teach them. But if you do that, they do not have the basics, because the language in real life is all watered down. So what you need to do, forget about the real life aspect, it will come, let them learn it in secondary schools later on." 

So what Dr Lee suggests is to go back to the basics - to anchor the language foundation. 

"If you teach an Ang Moh how so speak Mandarin, you start from scratch and you make sure that they learn what you teach them. You do not suddenly throw them something that they have never heard or learnt before, so I think it is taking them step by step and building confidence in them, making it fun for them and once they have that you do not need to worry about how they are not able to apply it to the daily usage. that will come later."   

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