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Commentary: In English-speaking Singapore, children face huge challenges in mastering mother tongue

From a child’s perspective, arguing that they have to master mother tongue because of economic or cultural reasons cuts no ice, says mum June Yong.

SINGAPORE: The learning of mother tongue has come under the spotlight, with a revamped secondary school mother tongue curriculum in the pipeline.

Starting with the Secondary 1 cohort in 2021, the new curriculum aims to boost national identity, and feature greater cultural knowledge, contemporary materials, and IT-enabled learning.

In addition, a Mother Tongue Support Programme will be introduced in 2021 for all Primary 3 pupils and extended to all Primary 4 pupils in 2022 who find the subject challenging.

Highlighting this week that Singapore has to acknowledge it is losing its bilingual competitive edge, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also urged Singaporeans to encourage the daily use of Mandarin and keep the language alive.

To help achieve this, the Speak Mandarin Campaign will launch a Database of Singaporean Mandarin Terms.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the Speak Mandarin Campaign's 40th anniversary celebration.

The changes sound promising. After all who would say no to greater support from schools or a concerted effort to increase mother tongue’s relevance to modern life?

But I must admit, I have a love-hate relationship with my mother tongue.

I can appreciate its economic implications; Singapore boasts links to large economies such as China and India, with Indonesia and Malaysia as close neighbours and knowing the local language can boost our job prospects in these markets.

I also see that language is intricately tied to culture, and I wouldn’t want future generations to lose their sense of cultural roots and traditions.

But I do face an uphill climb of the Great Mandarin Wall on a daily basis.

READ: Commentary: The benefits of bilingualism go beyond knowing two languages

When my eldest child comes to me expressing her disdain for the language and her wishes for it not to exist, I try to empathise and not chide. I was in the exact same shoes as a child, and I don’t think the young me would appreciate being told to “unfeel” what I felt.

From a child’s perspective, arguing that they have to master mother tongue because of economic or cultural reasons cuts no ice; it does not make them double down and study harder.

It is too far away on the horizon to distract them from their current pain point – which is to learn a language they hardly hear on a daily basis, and is increasingly foreign to them.

Add to this the pressure to perform well in the major exams, and you get the perfect storm.


It is harder for kids today to master mother tongue compared to my childhood years.

A screengrab from an MOE video featuring a girl learning her mother tongue so she can communicate with her grandfather.

When we were growing up, more people relied on their mother tongues or dialects. I conversed mainly in Mandarin with my parents and grandparents, and grew up on a steady diet of Channel 8 dramas.

In Secondary school, my CCA, Chinese Orchestra, also helped me appreciate the language and culture more.

Today, English is the world’s lingua franca. The language permeates our homes and also dominates popular culture; just turn on the TV, Netflix or YouTube, and you’ll be greeted by a cacophony of Western drama series and comedies.

We Google in English and we search for items on Siri in English.

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Even Chinese or Malay pop songs appear to have less cultural dominance, with the rise of K-pop groups like BTS and Black Pink.

If one does not live in a predominantly mother-tongue speaking household, or has a mother tongue-speaking relative at home, we would need to source for our daily input elsewhere, or take pains to “switch” channels.  

To build up our kids’ level of familiarity with the language, my husband and I made a pact to speak Mandarin more often, especially during the kids’ bedtime when we get to chat about our day. But we’ve struggled to keep this up consistently.

A couple friend of ours have fared better. They designated one parent as the Chinese-speaking parent in the household, and their children grew up hearing Mandarin at least half of the time. Their kids are warmer to the language and would generally reciprocate when spoken to in Mandarin.

Students at a Chinese class. (Photo: Howard Law)

Indeed, the home environment is a key factor in resolving the mother tongue conundrum.

But what about monolingual parents? Should they expect their children to be effectively bilingual?

In a monolingual home environment, one might expect to draw on external resources. My friend, Evelyn, started her daughter on Chinese tuition twice a week at the age of five.

She was not attending kindergarten at the time so this was her only exposure to the language. She scored an A in the subject at PSLE, but at Secondary 1, is starting to hit some roadblocks.

READ: Commentary: What hope do monolingual parents have in raising bilingual children?

As she weighs the options available to support her daughter’s learning, Evelyn lamented: 

Why should parents have to bear the burden of becoming their kids’ second teachers? If more support could be given to them within the school environment, such that we don’t have to agonise over the best ways to teach them ourselves, or hire tutors, that would be ideal.

I think the answer is clear – as long as there are no major intervening factors, like a role model in the home, a good quality tutor, or a passionate teacher at school, the child will face overwhelming odds in the journey towards bilingualism.

(File photo: Pixabay/weisanjiang)


Perhaps the beauty of our mother tongues lies not in culture or identity, important as these are, but in the everyday use of it – the joy of being able to connect with relatives, help a stranger with directions, and simply be understood.

When children experience language in the form of a special mooncake-making event or a rhythmic dikir barat performance, engaging as these efforts may be, it becomes relegated to a rare occasion, like something that belongs to a museum.

On the contrary, it is the social aspect of language that we’re lacking here in modern multicultural Singapore.

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While I may still make small talk with a neighbour in Mandarin, there is little opportunity for my kids to use the language.

To help them along, we’ve started playing songs from the Pandarin YouTube channel and watching local Channel 8 dramas on Toggle.

I also take a greater interest in their school work, making sure to revise their tingxie (spelling exercise) more regularly, even after the actual spelling is over. During the holidays, I also arrange for their Chinese tutor to bring them on excursions to various parks and museums.

That said, I think there’s nothing more effective than us walking the talk and putting in more effort to live and love the language.


In the battle for higher standards in mother tongue, both parents and teachers stand on the frontline.

Could teachers in school be better equipped to capture the fledgling interests of their charges? Could teachers and parents work closer together to make learning more integrated and therefore palatable to children?

File photo of students at a primary school. New Primary 1 students at St Hilda's Primary School participating in class on the first day of school. (TODAY file photo)

Maybe it’s not really about giving each student a tablet to master Chinese characters or Tamil scripts, or getting them to act in a play, but more of a willingness to use unconventional methods.

Like the Science teacher who used Pokémon to engage his students, we can consider giving kids essay topics that are more fun and appealing.

Kids will probably find it more engaging to write about their favourite superhero or pop idol, than about an elderly woman crossing the street with a heavy bag of groceries.

Many kids today have come to associate their mother tongue language as a problem, when in reality the language itself is not at fault, it’s the pressure of having to perform well in them in the major exams.

READ: Commentary: Want your kids to have a headstart in life? Build their vocab

We would do well to acknowledge that mastering mother tongue in a Singapore that lives and breathes in English is really hard for our children, who are a few generations away from native speakers of their mother tongue, and refrain from piling on the pressure.

Instead, we can help them appreciate the language – both its beauty in its literary or art forms as well as its function in conversing with others – by making it fun and empowering them to take the lead in their learning where possible.

If nothing shifts in this equation – neither the academic pressure nor the relative inaccessibility of the language – then the only clear winners are the tuition centres serving the majority of our youths today.

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/el(sl)


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