Me, My Mother Tongue, And I

After ten hardened years of having to learn our mother tongues in a country that proudly proclaims itself as effectively multilingual, why are we still so bad at them? GWENNETH TEO reflects on her own experiences with learning Chinese.

Photo by Gwenneth Teo



Gwenneth Two
Editorial Admin Manager

Hype Issue #56

Published on
January 11, 2023

“Just pass lah” is a mindset that many of us may have been guilty of at some point in our academic careers. Some battles are just not worth fighting, such as the battle with mother tongue examinations.

In all my years of secondary education, I studied Higher Chinese (HCL). I remember growing to resent it in Upper Secondary. The examinations were harder, and the expectations higher. Did you know that HCL paper questions are mostly open-ended? There were no multiple choice questions that I could fall back on; I had to fully understand the questions in order to be able to answer them, which became an even taller task when I couldn’t recognise half the Chinese characters on each paper. Throughout my HCL studies, I barely scraped by. Whenever I got a C6 (or 50 percent) grade, it was enough to elicit the same reaction as getting an A1 for any other subject.

Even before I graduated, I indulged in gleeful thoughts of not having to write a Chinese composition, read paragraphs of Chinese words, or tell an oral examiner what I thought about an image ever again. My HCL lessons were mentally draining and I’m grateful those days are behind me. However, I’ve grown to acknowledge the negative impacts of not taking my Chinese education seriously.

Without a curriculum to keep me disciplined at learning Chinese after I graduated, my Chinese language proficiency went downhill as fast as a roller coaster drop. When I talk to older family members whose primary language is Chinese, I struggle to express myself. When people ask me for directions in Chinese, I catch a glimpse of their confused expressions, insinuating that they did not understand a word I said. When applying for jobs, I state that I’m only verbally fluent in Chinese — Please don’t ask me to write it, thank you. 

Chinese terms that I once knew are now unrecognisable. I recognise familiar characters, but cannot recall their meaning or pronunciation. I’m competent at listening to more complex Chinese terms, but when it’s my turn to converse, only basic terms escape my lips. This is a linguistic phenomenon called receptive multilingualism. Simply put, receptive multilingualism is also known as being a passive speaker, in which the person being spoken to can understand what is being said, but cannot reply in the same language.

Many Singaporean youths tend to laugh off our poor command of our mother tongue. Is it time to take our mother tongue literacy seriously? Photo from Unsplash.

Is our education system outdated for language learning?

Growing up, I’ve read speeches by ministers talking about how being effectively bilingual gives us more opportunities. Education Minister Mr Chan Chun Sing once said, “Singaporeans’ multilingualism will give them an edge in this polarised world, navigating between and connecting with different countries”. 

But for kids to want to learn something, it has to be fun. Enjoyment precedes passion. For example, Maths was fun for me because every question presented a unique challenge and it was emotionally rewarding to solve them. Science was appealing because you got to learn the building blocks of life and what makes the world tick. For many in my generation, mother tongue papers felt more like tricky side missions: If you use this word correctly, at the right place, then you get the point. Most Singaporean students have experienced the pre-exam rite of memorising countless phrases and terms we could incorporate into our language essays to ‘level up’ their quality for higher scores. We grew to see our language papers as a burden and a waste of time and effort.

The result is that many young Singaporeans who speak in their mother tongue sound more like foreigners than native speakers. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of laughing at my friends when they speak Chinese, but they actually sounded more like friendly monotonous robots. To make matters worse, many of us Singaporean youths can barely form a sentence in our mother tongues without pausing or incorporating English terms.

For many of us, using our mother tongue feels like an outdated practice. In 2020, English became the primary language used by families in Singapore, while the usage of Chinese, Tamil, and Malay slowly declined. Outside of school, where else can we use our mother tongues? Many of us talk to people our age in English and only use our mother tongue to converse with older people who don’t speak English. This may subconsciously ingrain in young minds that our mother tongue belongs to a bygone era.

In a society that predominantly uses English, learning our mother tongues can feel irrelevant. I don’t think we should blame ourselves for disliking our mother tongues. Years of countless exams have taught students that it’s the exam scores that matter, not the value of their education. The other extreme of making mother tongue a non-examinable subject may not necessarily solve the issue. Rather, our society needs to figure out how to cultivate a genuine passion and interest in the learning of mother tongues amongst our youth. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that for many Singaporean children, the reality is that any language other than English is a second language, and the school curriculum should be adapted as such.

It’s long overdue for us to admit that the current way our mother tongues are taught no longer works. Even now, as I begin my journey to rekindle my appreciation for the Chinese language, it can feel tough at times.This is especially so as I’ve learnt to associate Chinese with the negative feelings I developed while learning it in school. My wish is that future students don’t have to resent their mother tongue before learning to love it.