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Changing the way we teach Chinese

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?

Changing the way we teach Chinese

TODAY file photo

Cornelius Kubler

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 (navenee [at]

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?

As a teacher, it’s quite natural to think back to how you yourself learnt the language and how you were taught when you were a child. But the times have changed.

Singapore society has changed very dramatically and, indeed, some of the Chinese language teachers here didn’t even grow up in Singapore, but are from China or Taiwan or other places. So they need to understand that the children’s language background is very different.

Modern theories of language pedagogy have taught us the importance of a strong oral foundation — being good at listening and at speaking the language, before formal reading and writing begin. In fact, in China or Taiwan, before six-year-old schoolchildren begin learning Chinese characters, they’ve already been speaking the language for at least five years.

I think teachers here sometimes forget that and have the same expectations of children that they would have of Chinese and Taiwanese children.

Also, traditional Chinese education stresses rote learning, memorisation. I certainly do believe memorisation has a role to play but, rather than memorising isolated characters, I think memorising language in context, in sentences, in paragraphs, short stories, dialogues — this has much more value.

Learning Chinese characters is, frankly, the hardest part about learning Chinese. To help ease the learning load, it’s possible to first teach characters for recognition only. So there’s no need to test a six-year-old child every day on the fine points of writing Chinese characters.

Perhaps there can be a three-stage process. First, listen and speak, and then recognise, and then, finally, learn to write. This is a more modern way of approaching the Chinese writing system.

The traditional school of thought is that to teach language effectively, you have to only speak Mandarin in Chinese class, English in English class. Do you agree with this — or, as one TODAY commentator suggested, allow other linguistic codes in class to help language learning?

In Chinese language classes, I do believe only Chinese should be used. It would be a mistake to mix a little bit of English, a little bit of Mandarin.

For very young children, they have a great tolerance for ambiguity; they don’t need to know exactly what a word means. So bringing Mandarin and other mother tongue languages into pre-schools, I think, is a wonderful idea. There’s absolutely no need for English translation or explanation.

When children are a little bit older, and you’re dealing with a reading passage or a list of new words, if these children come from households that use English exclusively, then, of course, we have to find a way to let them understand the meaning.

But that does not mean the teacher has to speak English in class. A much better way is to put the English explanation into the textbooks, on a website or software programme, and let the children look at it outside of class. But not for the teacher to use English.

In fact, we want the children to be under the impression that their Chinese teacher speaks only Chinese. Then the children will be likely to speak only Chinese with her and that’s what we want.

In your view, what defines a “mother tongue”? It’s been suggested that for some Singaporeans, English is their de facto “mother tongue”.

My view is that a person can very easily have two or three native languages or mother tongue (for me, both terms essentially mean the same thing). But the timing is important. You’ve got to learn the language while you are a child.

After the age of 12, it’s too old — it can no longer ever become your native language, especially the pronunciation. There are changes that take place in the human brain, you get better at analysis, intellectual capabilities increase but the ability to mimic sounds decreases.

So any language that you learn fluently before the age of 10 or 12 — and I mean having a group of people you constantly use the language with — is your mother tongue. Let me give you an example: I can imagine a family in Singapore, where they have a five-year old boy who speaks German with his father, French with his mother, Mandarin with the locally-hired housekeeper and English in school. All four of these languages maintained over, say, two or three years, could all be considered the native languages of this child.

I know in Singapore, for cultural and perhaps political reasons, the term mother tongue is used slightly differently. But I just mean language that’s acquired naturally to a native speaker level.

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