Should I opt for Chinese as my child’s Mother Tongue at primary school?

It’s coming up for primary enrolment in Singapore, and for some mixed-race families, or foreign families, it creates the annual question “Should I enrol my child for Chinese as their Mother Tongue (MT) language”.  As background, in Singapore, each child in a local school needs to study a compulsory mother tongue, which for most is related to their ethnicity –   the Chinese take Mandarin; Malays and Eurasians take Bahasa; and Indians take Tamil or Hindi.  For those who don’t fit into one of those categories (like us!), a MT language must be elected.   

Given the importance of China in the global economy, many parents feel that learning Chinese would be the best use of their child’s time.  Gosh, we thought the same too, especially given the Chinese heritage of our family.  Additionally, our children had been exposed to Mandarin in kindergarten, and we were keen to continue on with this.

We’re glad we’ve gone down that route.  But it’s worth doing it with your eyes wide open.  A few tips:

  1. Don’t feel alone or that the challenge is insurmountable because you don’t speak Chinese

    I’ve noticed that there are many Singaporean Chinese millennials who grew up using mostly English and Singlish, and now are also unable to proficiently teach their children Chinese.  Yes, basic conversation is possible, but it’s hardly fluent nor going to pass Grade 3 Chinese composition.  Conversely, there are other families who have sent their kids to tuition from the moment they start pre-school, and both parents and kids despise the language so much by the time they reach P1, that studying it formally is also difficult.    So, if you’re effectively a non-Chinese speaker, and trying to raise a bilingual children in Singapore, don’t feel like you are that far behind!

  2. Be supportive

    A parents’ attitude is almost everything.   Even if you don’t understand it, at least be there to sit with them as they attempt to read a simple picture book.  Many times I’ve heard parents say in front of their child ‘Chinese is so difficult, I used to flunk it all the time’. ….. this doesn’t feel the right approach to encourage a child to succeed.  Let’s be positive and involved, if we want to create a winning attitude in our children.  We shouldn’t limit our children by our past challenges – little children love to learn and their brains are sponges; they think it’s fun and a natural.  You’ll realise this when you see how fast your child takes up learning Chinese characters.  They’ll leave you for dead!

  3. Be ready to invest time and energy

    Learning Chinese at primary school level is not the same as learning it in pre-school.  It quickly goes from being a fun and immersive approach, into an academic structure with weekly spelling tests, and focus on character writing; and with 30 – 40 in the class, the individual time for learning in school is limited.   This really means you need to be their quarter-back, and support your child’s learning outside of school.

    I find there are lots of similarities, between what a parent who does speak Chinese should do and what a parent who does not speak Chinese should do.  However, the limitation is that if a parent doesn’t speak basic Chinese, they often cannot understand the instruction of the learning materials (eg MOE text-book home activities, or Sage books) nor practice the weekly spelling lists in a traditional way.  I remember madly going through the P1 book list and trying to work out the difference between each of the six mandarin books we’d bought, and which one had to be packed on each different day (thankfully – I realised that on the back cover of the MOE text books in tiny font is an English translation of the title). Read my post here on how we finally managed to understand our P1 text book and thrive in the subject.

    It’s also hard to get access to supporting materials (ordering from Taobao using Google translate is an expensive nightmare!), and even the best Chinese learning apps (eg iHuman, Wukong Literacy, etc) have all the registration and payment pages in Chinese.  So you really do need to put in the extra effort and be a little creative.  But it’s not impossible.

  4. Consider the school choice carefully

    Some primary schools in Singapore teach standard level Chinese, and others offer the option for Higher Chinese.  Some only do Higher Chinese.  This can be the difference between sinking and swimming.  Consider whether the school might have a high percentage of intake who are primarily mandarin speaking at home (is the school associated with a Chinese Clan society? What is the demographic of students?), and also whether the school has a good support network for struggling children.  Some schools will offer remedial support classes, and other schools will expect the parents to pay for this outside of school! I’ve made a more detailed post comparing the number of characters / relative difference between Normal, Higher and Foundation Chinese options.

  5. Set up a formal learning structure if needed

    If you plan to start your child in P1 (aged 7) in local school with learning Chinese as a fresh start, with no prior exposure, it could be quite intimidating.  The homework will be totally in Chinese; the letters to parents from the laoshi may be written only in Chinese with no translation. Finally with my Luka Hero I’ve been able to decipher how to read Chinese handwritten notes! It works equally well (if not better) with our Youdao pen too.

    An older child may feel frustrated if he/she can’t understand what’s going on in the Chinese class, or gets negative feedback from teachers (which can unfortunately happen – I suppose some teachers view having a straggler in the class make a large class size even more unwieldy to teach).  For us, we made a simple change of reading Chinese books for 10 minutes each evening, and it massively boosted reading confidence for my primary schooler. We started off with Le Le graded reader series, which I cannot recommend highly enough, and we use Skritter app for practising the weekly spelling.

    I think it’s very important for all families to expose their Chinese learners to more fun Chinese media outside of school – immerse them in simple Chinese TV, games, and music.  But potentially you may need to consider a more structured program to bring them up to speed with Chinese as their second language.  I would recommend a one-on-one approach with a tutor, given that most of the enrichment centres in Singapore are based around kids being 2 terms ahead of where their class is, rather than coming from a low base! Be sure to read my top tips on how to increase Chinese exposure in the home, for families where Chinese language is not readily spoken.

  6. You cannot have everything!

    By devoting time to Chinese, this might mean less free time and money to spend on other aspects of childhood.  As an example, we spend a lot of time reading Chinese books together in the evening, or doing character writing, so our piano practice takes a backseat.  We also don’t do a lot of afterschool activities, although we did start ballet through a Chinese drama school which was a nice re-enforcing activity.  Our choice of church also was influenced by availability of a Chinese-speaking Sunday school.  It’s really become part of our lifestyle, deliberately.

    It’s been rewarding for us ….. and we now have three children who can all fluently speak and read Chinese, and in fact for my youngest two, their Chinese reading and writing level is ahead of their English one! To find out more about how our family is faring, there’s another post here which may help.

This process of learning Chinese from scratch is certainly not for everybody, and you have to consider carefully whether the commitment and investment is worth it for your family.  So in short, if you’re not up for the hands-on challenge (or reading this blog post in full), I would suggest if you have the choice, just choose to learn Malay! 

If you want to learn the language yourself as an adult beginner, see my previous post on the subject here. I’ve also put loads of tips on how to support your child’s Mandarin mother tongue learning journey on an earlier page.

Enjoy the special opportunity to embrace a new language with your child!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: