SINGAPORE: The feeling of alienation first hit when the students seated around me stood up in unison, pushing their chairs backwards with a screech.
“Lao shi zao an,” the students chanted, bidding their teacher good morning in a greeting that sounded the same to me as it did when I was at school. Awkwardly, I followed suit, feeling more like a fish out of water with every moment.
It was the first day of my attachment at Tanjong Katong Secondary, where I would be spending three days as a student to brush up on my abysmal Mandarin. And hearing the familiar greeting brought back several unfortunate memories of my time as a student – memories that I imagined had long been expunged.
There was the dreaded ting xie or dictation, a weekly test of vocabulary that I would often end up failing spectacularly, despite my best efforts to memorise and practise writing the words.
And the endless pages of cheng yu, or Chinese idioms, that I had to memorise and somehow reproduce in the exams. Needless to say, the only cheng yu that appeared in my exams was feng he ri li: The same phrase that everyone used in their exams.
And there was also the non-negotiable ban on speaking English in class – a ban that earned me death stares from many a teacher as I struggled to express myself in Mandarin.
I shed real tears over the subject when I was a student, not least because of the hours I spent on rote learning with nothing to show for my efforts. And once I attained the bare minimum grade to make it to university, I gleefully chucked my Chinese textbook aside and swore to myself never to bother picking the language up again.
But here I was back in school, surrounded by classmates less than half my age and doing exactly what I had told myself I would never do.
THEN AND NOW
It all began with a conversation over a networking lunch with Ministry of Education staff, where I was intrigued to find out that the teaching and learning of the Chinese Language in schools has evolved over the years. Rather than the rote learning and memory work that had formed such an integral part of my personal experience, the focus of lessons nowadays has shifted: Emphasis is now placed on encouraging students to love the language, and use it in their daily life.
Given my past experience with the subject, I was doubtful. How could students – particularly those like me who speak only English at home – be encouraged to love the language? I had to see this in action for myself, and what better way to do so than to embed myself in a Chinese Language class as a student?
As a working adult – and a journalist to boot – going back to school just for three days, I was aware that there were limits to how authentic my experience would be. But I was assured by my teacher, Mrs Lee-Sem Seow Wei, that she would make it as real as possible and that I would be treated the same as any student.
Not only would I need to fully participate in each class activity, I would also have to complete every class assignment and take every test that the students would go through over the three days of my attachment.
It sounded like a great opportunity. But when I realised I was to be joining a Higher Chinese class in the school, I began to wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew.
I questioned why the school had chosen to place me in a class of that standard, given that I could barely write my name in Mandarin, much less read the textbook. But Mrs Lee was strangely sanguine when I voiced my apprehension about my survival prospects.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “Just come for the lesson first.”
“And don’t worry about preparing for class,” she added, anticipating my next question. “Just come, and enjoy it. The students will help you along if you don’t understand.”
But despite her reassurances, my anxiety remained and reached a peak as I sat in the classroom watching my fellow pupils file in a sea of green and white uniforms. Some averted their eyes and scurried to their seats, while others looked curiously at me.
Perhaps it was first day jitters, but my fear of being shunned by the students returned with a vengeance. However, they were soon put to rest when I was greeted with a friendly smile by my seatmate, Mandy Chan.
“Are you all right? You look very nervous,” she said as she introduced herself and sank into her seat.
THE FIRST TEST
The week’s topic was dreams and aspirations, and Mrs Lee started the lesson by reading out some stories in a textbook about famous people in history, such as Shakespeare and Bruce Lee. As I tried to follow along with the words in the textbook, she slowed down and used English terms to explain some of the more complex terms.
Apart from my surprise at her use of English in class, I was also surprised to find out that speaking in class was also encouraged, so students could get instant help from each other when they had difficulty understanding some of the terms she was using, or practise using the language.
She proceeded to tell the class a little more about Shakespeare’s life, and about some of his more well-known plays. I shook my head in amazement: Shakespeare was difficult enough to understand even as a university undergraduate. And here she was explaining the plot of Romeo and Juliet to the students, in Mandarin no less.
But I was encouraged that I could follow more of the lesson than I thought I would, and that what I could understand was interesting and engaging. The laughter in class as Mrs Lee bantered with students in Mandarin also made it clear that the Chinese Language classroom was - for these students at least - not the nightmarish place I remembered it to be.
Apart from a few hiccups here and there, I was getting along swimmingly. But the real test was just around the corner.
As we approached the tail end of the lesson, Mrs Lee distributed a set of newspaper articles, each one featuring a person who has overcome obstacles and gone on to achieve something great in their fields. We were then divided into groups, assigned one article each and given five minutes to read it and answer a series of questions in our group.
As I flicked through the set of articles, looking at the walls of text I could not decipher, my eyes glazed over. I scanned the accompanying pictures hoping to get a clue, but apart from Olympic gold medalist Joseph Schooling, I had no idea who the rest of the people were.
Okay, I thought to myself. I passed Chinese Language at the national exams, got my university degree and am now gainfully employed. If I put my mind to it, I can do this.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t. My assigned article appeared to be about a group of students in China who had gained YouTube fame with their singing. But that was all I could gather based on the little that I could understand.
Watch: The YouTube video we were shown in class
As I focused on slowly reading each word, I was distracted by Mrs Lee’s voice.
“You should be done reading by now. Time to work on your questions!”
I looked around me. Most of my classmates were already finishing the article. I was on the third line.
I sighed, looking around for some backup, and my gaze landed on Mandy, who had not only finished the article, but was looking in my direction.
“What does the article mean?” I muttered under my breath. Understanding dawned as she smiled encouragingly and summarised it for me.
MAKING MANDARIN A “LIVING LANGUAGE”
It was clear that Mandy isn’t just good at Mandarin as a subject. She also loves the language, culture and pretty much everything to do with it.
When we were given the lyrics of a song by Taiwanese singer Jay Chou and asked to identify lines which we could use to encourage a friend, she looked over my shoulder and offered to help me, telling me that she had already memorised all the lyrics to the song. And in an in-class essay about her dreams and aspirations, she wrote about how she hopes to influence others to love Chinese history, and learn more about it.
“I love the culture because I think it’s very interesting,” she told me. “I love how in a Chinese word, just a small dot or dash could make a very big difference.”
Mandy, who comes from Malaysia and says she speaks mostly Mandarin at home, has a standard that I could only aspire to reach. But the number of students like her – who come from a Mandarin-speaking background – may be diminishing.
According to the 2015 General Household Survey released by the Department of Statistics, 36.9 per cent of residents aged five and above used English as the main language at home, up from 32.3 per cent in 2010. At Tanjong Katong Secondary, Mrs Lee said about 70 per cent of students come from an English-speaking background.
“They only use Mandarin when they are with us in school,” she explained. “So it is really important to keep them engaged and be really active in learning during Chinese lessons. That is why a lot of the pedagogies and teaching practices have changed to help students discover that it’s not a subject, but a living language.”
“So besides the text, we use videos, additional reading and newspapers, and we open up all the possible modes of learning to students,” she added. “And the students can have the option to pursue their interests further by reading a novel or listening to Mandarin songs.”
“For students who come from purely English-speaking families, this is a way in which they can learn to use the language in different contexts when they leave us and graduate.”
Brina Lai, another of my classmates, said she speaks mostly English at home, and counts English Literature as one of her favourite subjects.
She agreed that it can be difficult at times to speak Mandarin fluently. But she makes it a point to practise by having conversations in Mandarin with friends and family members, and exposing herself to Chinese shows.
“I enjoy it when the teacher shows videos in class,” she said. “I understand how the characters feel, and how they speak. I can learn a lot from the way they phrase their sentences.”
“When I talk to my friends in class, it also helps,” she added. “Because my friends tell me if I make a mistake.”
OVERCOMING THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
True enough, I found that having to attend lessons regularly, read the materials and speak the language did help improve my fluency and raise my confidence.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was now a working adult and fully understood – through painful experience – the importance of using the language in the course of my work. But I also felt that referencing current affairs and famous people in the lesson, as well as using news articles and song lyrics that we already knew of through our social media feeds helped tremendously in emphasising the importance and relevance of the language in our daily lives.
This, I felt, was a lesson that the 14-year-old me would have appreciated.
As the days went by, things started to take a turn for the better. My face lost the furrowed brow and perplexed expression that were a mainstay for much of the first lesson. As the teaching progressed, the in-class activities were designed to build on what I had already learnt, forcing me to constantly refer to my hastily scribbled notes and use the new vocabulary and cheng yu I had learnt in my assignments.
Of course, there were moments when I stumbled. Like the time when I had to present my group’s work to the class, and couldn’t read the words my groupmate had written.
Or the time when Mrs Lee called on me to answer one of her questions, and I unthinkingly blurted out, “Are you seriously asking me?” in English before I could stop myself, eliciting laughter from everyone in class.
But by my final day, I was able to produce a 150-word essay in class, on the topic of my dreams and aspirations.
I was able to understand and appreciate the beauty and richness of the language, from the different literary devices used to the varying ways of structuring sentences in Mandarin.
And I was able to make a farewell speech in Mandarin to the class, thanking them for all their help and encouragement, and promising them that I would go back and write an inspiring story about my experience.
I wouldn't say that I become an overnight prodigy after my stint in the classroom. I also wouldn't say that the three short days worked a miracle in improving my fluency or getting me to love the language more.
But it has encouraged me to use the language more in my daily life. Where I once shunned everything and anything to do with Chinese culture, I now find myself actively seeking out Chinese-language songs to listen to on my daily commute, or practising my comprehension skills by reading news articles in Mandarin.
My spoken Mandarin might still be hesitant, and I may still lack the vocabulary to express myself in the same way I would in the English language.
But after thinking that I could do little more than write my name in Chinese, I emerged from the classroom with a little more confidence in myself and my abilities.
And I now have four new cheng yu to add to my repertoire.