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The science on language learning suggests it’s time to relook PSLE bilingual policy

In the last two decades, advances in brain and language research have offered much illuminating insights into language learning. It is perhaps timely to reexamine the PSLE bilingual policy based on latest scientific and practice-based evidence.

Whilst a minority can master two or more languages, the majority are better in the predominant language at home and in the community, says the author.

Whilst a minority can master two or more languages, the majority are better in the predominant language at home and in the community, says the author.

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The computation of Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) aggregates for Secondary 1 posting includes two languages — English and Mother Tongue Language (MTL) — together with Mathematics and Science.

The use of two languages disadvantages about 15 per cent or some 6,000 primary school children who are taking foundational MTL or exempted from MTL every year.  

In the last two decades, advances in brain and language research have offered many illuminating insights into language learning. Fifty years of bilingualism policy have also taught us many lessons. It is perhaps timely to reexamine the PSLE bilingual policy based on latest scientific and practice-based evidence.

Currently, children with special needs such as those diagnosed with autism and dyslexia are given MTL exemption in recognition of their poor language but normal non-linguistic abilities, whilst those with unspecified or undiagnosed learning difficulties are offered foundational programmes.

In the recently revamped PSLE and Sec 1 posting system, those taking Foundation-level MTL and those exempted from MTL will be assigned Academic Levels (AL) 6 to 8.

This means that even if a child scores 100 marks in his Foundation-level MTL, the highest score given is AL6, an equivalent of 45-64 mark or low pass for a Standard-level subject.

While such a scoring principle applies to all subjects, its impact is greatest on MTL because of the unique demands of learning a language on a child and the fact that the system imposes two compulsory languages among the four subjects used to calculate PSLE scores.

Similarly, a child exempted from MTL is given scores of AL 6 to AL 8 though he is exempted from PSLE. The Ministry of Education (MOE) says that this scoring is “in recognition of the heavier examination load that the majority of students who take the examinations for all four subjects at the PSLE have to undergo”.

However, one must understand why MTL exemption is provided in the first place. Exemption is an inclusive educational approach to provide accommodation for children who are disadvantaged by their disability in PSLE system. This is what it means to level the playing field.

It has been shown in dyslexia studies that dyslexic children use nearly five times the brain area or effort as neurotypical children to perform a language-based task. Even after the lesson is learnt, the dyslexic child forgets it more easily due to poor working memory.

If effort put in for learning, that is, workload, is used to justify giving an artificial score, then special needs' children should be given incentive points for working extra hard to overcome their disabilities to learn the remaining three subjects.

Some reasoned that the MOE scoring is fair for MTL-exempt children as they should not be assigned an AL score better than a child taking MTL at the Foundation level. But in truth, this policy is equally discriminative for both sets of children.

A mandatory made-up score should never be given for an exempted child as it is discriminatory. Why? Consider what science tells us about language learning.

Brain, dyslexia and language research in the last two decades have shown that the typical population has varying abilities to learn languages.

Whilst a minority can master two or more languages, the majority are better in the predominant language at home and in the community. However, even with a conducive environment, about 20 per cent of the population is impaired in their native language.

There are 3.9 to 9.7 per cent Chinese dyslexics among native Chinese speakers and 5 to 17 per cent English Dyslexics among native English speakers.

Neuroimaging studies have showed the loci of brain dysfunctions are dependent on the language structure. Chinese is a logographic and tonal language, whilst English, French and Malay are alphabetical and phonological languages. Tamil is alpha-syllabic.

Hence dysfunctions are found in different parts of the brain for Chinese and English dyslexics. Different children manage languages differently.

Secondly, language ability and intelligence are two different things. In measuring intelligence quotient, the verbal and non-verbal sub-test scores are mandatorily reported separately if they are highly discrepant.

Computing a mathematical average or sum aggregate is considered unfair and an underestimation of the future prospects of these children.

The critical period theory — that language learning should start in early childhood to ensure good grasp — was found to be irrelevant for second language learning more than 10 years ago.

Children and adults can acquire a second language equally well if given the same enabling language environment. In other words, there is no urgency to force-feed our children and prematurely kill the joy of learning a second language.

Lastly, natural social environment is a strong determinant of the level of language proficiency. With the successful implementation of English as the official administrative language, primary medium of education and lingua franca, English is emerging as the new “mother tongue” of Singaporeans.

The official mother tongues are becoming the “second languages” among younger Singaporeans, as English is found to have permeated the average Singaporean’s life in all aspects.

The past decades of compulsive enforcement of MTL proficiency through PSLE has also unfortunately eroded motivation and paradoxically caused aversion in MTL learning among Singaporean school children.

Thus from biological, linguistic, psychological and social standpoints, it is unrealistic to expect all Singaporean children to be equally proficient in two languages by 12 years old. This is especially so if the languages are distinctly contrasting, such as English and Chinese.

High-stakes educational decisions based on the current PSLE policy will bias and prematurely curtail their future prospects.

Drawing together the best available science and practice-based evidence, I propose an alternative system for calculating PSLE aggregate score that will be fairer.

My suggestion: Use the best three out of four compulsory subjects to calculate the PSLE aggregate, with a required pass in English. This allows children born with good language ability to pursue excellence in linguistic achievement, whilst those strong in Maths, Science, Art or Sports are not compromised or discriminated against by their relatively weaker linguistic skills.

All children are hence given equal freedom to pursue success in life. Undoubtedly, the MTL learning remains critical for economic and diplomatic reasons and as cultural anchors to preserve our Asian heritage.

Hence, I propose to strategically reposition and promote MTL learning through an incentivising approach to revitalise the use and love of mother tongues among Singaporeans, instead of letting our precious mother tongue be just a tiresome compulsory PSLE subject for Sec 1 posting.



Dr Lim Hong Huay is a development paediatrician with three children aged 9, 11 and 16, of whom two have special needs.

Related topics

PSLE mother tongue language learning school Education

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