Pri 4 student writes to Zaobao to rebut woman who said Chinese standards in doldrums

TF when you struggle to plough through a Primary 4 student's Chinese commentary.

Joshua Lee | May 21, 2022, 08:06 PM

If you're studying Chinese, or if your child is studying the language, chances are, you would have some views about the state of Chinese education in Singapore.

Well, one former Chinese newspaper journalist had some pretty strong views and hashed them out in a forum letter to Lianhe Zaobao earlier in May 2022.

Spoiler alert: She doesn't hold it in high regard.

But here's the more interesting bit: Her letter prompted a rebuttal -- from a Primary 4 student.

Former journalist: Chinese classes today are "dull"

Let's start from the beginning.

The former journalist, Li Minwen, has three children who are in primary and secondary schools. And looking at the state of their Chinese education, Li felt "anxious for the generation's level of Chinese proficiency".

"The contents of my children's Chinese textbooks have not changed in the last 30 years, even the pedagogy remains largely unchanged from my time in school.

Aside from the usual themes of respecting the elderly and caring for the young, caring for the environment, racial harmony, and Asian values, Chinese education in Singapore today covers virtually nothing else. One can only imagine how dull and insipid such classes are.

In a time when we are bombarded with all kinds of media, how can this inspire enthusiasm for learning the Chinese language in our children?"

Li also singled out the rote learning method that students use.

"Basically, when my kids are learning Chinese, they memorise the model answer for the topics that will be covered in the exams. Even when it comes to writing, they don't have a solid foundation to write in an in-depth and descriptive way. Most of the time, they write like they're producing an accounting report."

It's the same story at the tuition classes which her children attend: They use a "force-feeding method" which equips children with the skills to pass exams but remains ineffective in helping them learn the language.

Li also lamented how her children were unable to communicate in Chinese, especially with their peers of the same age from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

She praised overseas Chinese language lessons that are available online, finding them to be lively and interesting, portraying everyday things very vividly through easy-to-understand short passages, poems, and songs ("They can even describe a falling leaf with such fervour!").

Li also observed that there were some Caucasian students in the online Chinese classes from overseas, and they could communicate fluently in Mandarin, more so than her children.

"I couldn't help but ask: Must our Chinese lessons be burdened with so much historical baggage and the need to instil Asian values? Can't we let our children learn Chinese without the need to take exams? Can't we use Chinese lessons to experience and appreciate the beauty of the language? Why can't our children read about the adventures of Tin Tin or Harry Potter, or Around The World in 80 Days during Chinese lessons?

If year after year, we only teach the same old themes (that were mentioned above), it would be a blessing if our kids don't resent the Chinese language, let alone have an interest in it."

Li pointed out that students spend the same amount of time in school learning Chinese and English. Yet, the results couldn't be more different. Today, most students choose to speak in English, even those who take Higher Chinese. She also mentioned that the education ministry spends a lot of money every year to promote bilingualism, but in the end, Chinese remains just a mere school subject and nothing more.

"It really leaves one feeling heartbroken and helpless."

P4 student's rebuttal:

The person who submitted the rebuttal goes by the name Hao Yueran. Claiming to be a Primary 4 student, Hao addressed Li's (whom they called "Auntie Li") opinion piece point by point, starting with the Chinese textbooks:

"I went online to check -- the textbook that we use now 《欢乐伙伴》was published in 2015. The educational materials used in secondary schools were launched only in 2021. Auntie Li's children are using the most updated materials, so how can it be that textbooks haven't changed in 30 years?"

Learning methods are different as well; Hao gave the example of the Student Learning Space, an online learning platform that provides students with resources so that they can learn at their own pace.

On the Chinese curriculum having virtually nothing aside from the usual themes of respecting the elderly and caring for the young, caring for the environment, racial harmony, and Asian values, Hao said:

"Perhaps Auntie Li was too busy working, and did not peruse her children's textbooks close enough."

Hao's textbook features other themes like family bonding, the importance of adhering to rules, observing safety, and more. These themes are taught through a variety of ancient poems, songs, and other content.

"I don't feel that these are dull or insipid," said Hao.

Hao also disagreed with Li's view that students are being taught through rote learning. "Even if my teacher chooses to teach us how to answer certain questions correctly, they never make us memorise stuff that we don't understand."

"Overseas Chinese teachers aren't the only ones who can teach composition-writing. My teacher is also excellent at it. She spends a few lessons teaching us how to write metaphorically, and in a targeted but moving way... she even showed us examples of good writing and analysed them with us."

Hao expressed their love for Chinese lessons, which teach more than just the Chinese language.

"The small group discussions train me to think and express myself. We also produce picture books and watch dialogues on YouTube... I believe that all teachers do their best to teach. If they were to read Auntie Li's commentary, I think they will be hurt."

In fact, Hao managed to flip the argument, putting forth that "parents are their children's first teacher".

"Auntie Li should spend more time at home conversing with her children in Mandarin and buy them more Chinese books. I hope she won't pin the cause of her children's failure to learn Mandarin on the curriculum and their teachers. It is unfair to do so."

If you are proficient in Mandarin, perhaps you would like to take a look at the original commentaries:

Quotes were translated from Mandarin. Top photos via Amazon, Les Anderson on Unsplash