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Helping children to learn Mandarin as its use at home declines

One’s first language, or mother tongue, is commonly defined as the language that one has been exposed to from birth. One’s second language is learned later, and can be a language used in one’s community/country or a foreign language (not commonly used in one’s community/country).

Helping children to learn Mandarin as its use at home declines

The author, seen here with her daughter and husband, says that when her daughter was three years old, she could easily count from one to 20 in English but could only count up to 10 in Mandarin.

One’s first language, or mother tongue, is commonly defined as the language that one has been exposed to from birth. One’s second language is learned later, and can be a language used in one’s community/country or a foreign language (not commonly used in one’s community/country).

The recent news that 71 per cent of Chinese households with Primary 1 students spoke mainly English at home points towards the phenomenon that, in Singapore, the majority of our children are learning Mandarin not as their mother tongue, but more as a second language.

In some cases, where the child has virtually no exposure to Mandarin-speaking in her everyday life despite residing in Singapore, she learns it almost as a foreign language.

The learning of any second and/or foreign language is challenging, especially when one is learning it in an environment where that language is not commonly used at the level of its intended mastery level.

Further, the Chinese language adopts an entirely different writing system from Latin-based languages (the former uses ideograms and logograms, while the latter is based on phonograms), and spoken Mandarin requires the learning of tones.

Yet, pragmatically speaking, we know that the learning of more than one language is beneficial for brain development, and mental flexibility, resulting in better executive function, higher levels of empathy, and may also offer protective effects against cognitive decline and dementia.  

How then do we help our children to become confidently bilingual?

One may argue that it would be useful to regularly and publicly highlight successful bilingual individuals as exemplars, ostensibly reminding and inspiring us of the possibility of learning Mandarin well and its attendant benefits.

Or we could try to make Mandarin attractive to the younger audience by incorporating familiar “cool Western elements” such as hip-hop dancing in campaign activities.

I would argue however that we should focus on the average Singaporean child’s main avenue of learning Mandarin, that is, through the Mandarin classes in the school system.   

Policy intentions aside, in practice, those involved in teaching our children Mandarin have adjusted their teaching targets and curriculum accordingly over the decades.

For example, during a parent-teacher session in 2015 at my then three-year-old daughter’s preschool that adopts a bilingual curriculum, I highlighted to the teachers the progress discrepancy between my daughter’s command of English and Mandarin.

While my daughter could easily count from one to 20 in English then, she could only count up to 10 in Mandarin. The teachers said that it was already “very good” that she could count up to 10 in Mandarin as most three-year-olds could not do so.

By the end of Primary 1 this year, my daughter is able to spell and use English words such as “tumbling”, “haystack”, “breathless”, “gardener”, “My sister received a present for her birthday”, but not their equivalent in Mandarin.

Meanwhile, a Pri 1 student could quite easily translate the Mandarin terms learnt in class to English. For instance “她马上把地扫干净”, “书包里的尺是我的” are easier in concept than those taught in the English curriculum.

Should there be an institutionalised difference in standards for English and Mandarin, in terms of targeted proficiency and content?

Surely, for bilingualism to flourish, the system should aim for the child to learn English and Mandarin simultaneously, and to achieve similar mastery levels in the longer run?

Ideally, the objective is for the child to achieve a bilingual understanding of the basic concepts and content covered in the lower primary school (and preschool).

The problem, I believe, lies in the cognitive load on the child learning Mandarin as a second or foreign language.

It would be at least double the learning load for the child, if she had to learn the concept of one to 20, along with the correct terms (pronunciation, hanyu pinyin, characters and so forth) for one to 20 simultaneously.


Expanding on this, it may be worthwhile to consider piloting a review of how Mandarin is being taught in school, that is, for the child to focus on learning only the right Mandarin terms, instead of also having to deal with learning new content simultaneously.

For example, during the first two to three examination-free years of primary school (and also during preschool years), the teaching materials for English and Mandarin could be based on the same content and vocabulary range.

More specifically, the child, whose true mother tongue is English, could first learn the content in English, then pick up during Mandarin class time the equivalent Mandarin terms for the concepts covered.

In this way, the child’s relative strength in English would help to uplift her learning of Mandarin.

During the allocated Mandarin class time, the child would be able to better focus on learning the pronunciation, hanyu pinyin, and the Chinese characters of these concepts.

The child would also be able to compare and contrast the English and Mandarin sentences side by side, realising in the process that a word-for-word translation between the two languages is not always correct, because the grammar, sentence structures in both languages are different.

The gist of this bilingual teaching approach is that it helps to enhance the child’s metalinguistic ability, including word awareness and syntactic awareness.

Similarly, the Mandarin language teacher could also go through the mathematics content already covered by the English language teacher, so that the child learns basic mathematical terms in Mandarin. The child could also be introduced to the differences in numeral systems. For example, the commonly-used concepts of 万 (ten thousand), 亿 (a hundred million) in the Chinese numeral system.

Bilingual teaching is not new. In the Netherlands, bilingual teaching (in Dutch and English) is much more extensive than what I have suggested here. It combines subject teaching with the teaching of language skills.

For example, in biology classes, the teacher speaks in Dutch and English, and is trained to stimulate the students to use both languages and become confident speakers.

Bilingual education is found in one in five Dutch secondary schools, with primary schools and pre-vocational schools also starting to adopt it.

The Netherlands consistently ranks amongst the top few for English proficiency amongst countries where English is not the native language. 

The suggested bilingual teaching approach at the lower primary (and preschool) level could also be adopted for the teaching and learning of other mother tongues such as Bahasa Melayu and Tamil in our public-school system.



Lee Hsin is a PhD student in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Despite having been raised in a Mandarin-only home environment and attended a Special Assistance Plan school, she struggles to provide a similar Mandarin-speaking home environment for her seven-year-old daughter.

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