Changing the way we teach Chinese

Changing the way we teach Chinese
TODAY file photo
Published: 4:02 AM, September 19, 2013
Updated: 8:00 PM, September 19, 2013
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How should Singapore rise to the challenge of teaching mother tongue languages like Mandarin, in an environment where more young people are growing up in English-speaking households and among English-speaking friends?

Professor Cornelius Kubler has some clue. He specialises in Chinese language pedagogy and has been helping Americans learn Mandarin. The Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College was a keynote speaker at the third International Conference on Teaching and Learning of Chinese as a Second Language, held in Singapore last week. Here are excerpts of his interview with Navene Elangovan (

What are the key challenges of learning Mandarin in an English-speaking environment?

One challenge is finding a way to have the children be in contact with the target language for a long enough period of time. It’s got to be more than one class period a day. It also needs to be done entirely in the language — in a lot of Chinese language classes, the teacher is actually mixing English and Chinese, back and forth.

These days in America, bilingual education has become a fad and I visited some programmes. Most do not live up to their name — some are really just an hour a day of Chinese and the rest of the class is in English. There are some programmes in the San Francisco Bay area and the greater Washington DC area where the Mandarin part of the curriculum is at least three hours a day — I think that’s long enough to have real impact.

How should old methods of teaching change to accommodate this new reality?

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Cornelius Kubler