Chinese Language Education

Why do some people have more problems than others in Chinese? The environment is one. The other is one’s attitude towards learning a language that can only grow in usefulness in China grows in economic and political power in the coming years. The MOE is struggling again to shape its curriculum to fit students of different competencies in Chinese.  However, is CL ‘B’ enough? A deeper question is whether CL ‘B’ is realistic in allowing students to cope or it realistically aggravates the problem of allowing students weak in Chinese to remain weak in Chinese? After all for the sake of argument about “fairness” , students who are weak in English despite being brilliant in other subjects, do not have this EL ‘B’ life buoy thrown to them. Oh well.

Help! I’m Chinese!

05:55 AM Mar 20, 2010

From 2012, all Primary 1 students will be taught the Chinese language in three classes of different skill-levels. I could have used this system growing up. Then I might be able to order a set meal in a food court without pointing at the pictures.

While my classmates raised their hands for extra sheets of paper during Chinese composition examinations in secondary school, I once raised mine to ask for help writing my name in Chinese.

The befuddled invigilator wrote all the different variations of the Chinese characters in my name – all 236 of them, it seemed – while berating me for embarrassing all Chinese people in general.

It was like shopping for a name. “Ooh, I like the look of that one! I’ll take it!”

My Chinese oral exam was more challenging for the examiner to understand than it was for me to say the pocketful of words I knew. Reading the given passage, I’d casually replace the words I didn’t recognise with the Chinese word for “something”.

“Xiao Mei walked to the something on Sunday. She found something and decided something something something. Just then, she met her friend Li Li and something something. ‘Thank you, I something!’ said Li Li.”

Xiao Mei could have been a crack dealer for all I knew.

Things aren’t much better today. Last week my cab driver didn’t know how to get to Caldecott Hill or what a “MediaCorp” was, so I sputtered in the best Mandarin I could dig up: “Erm … dian shi ji!”

I wanted to say “television studio” but I think I ended up telling him I wanted to buy a new TV set.

When it was clear that I did not want a ride to the nearest Harvey Norman, and the line of cars we were holding up stretched back to Batam, I panicked and resorted to playing word association. “Zoe Tay! Fann Wong! Pan Ling Ling!” I yelped.

“Orh!” said the cabbie. “SBC, ah?”

I get a lot of flak for not being able to speak the language – almost exclusively from other Chinese people. It’s almost as if my inability to sing a Teresa Teng song personally offends them.

“You’re Chinese, you know?” those people will say, as if I’ve lied to myself that the yellow shade of my complexion was brought about by acute childhood jaundice. “You should be able to speak Chinese.”

Dude, it’s not an automatic thing. If, as a rule, all Chinese people “should be able” to speak the language, babies in Hubei would be popping out of their mothers with a cheery “ni hao!” instead of the universal cry after a spank on the butt.

“Aren’t you ashamed that you can’t speak Chinese?” Not really, no. But my chicken stir-fry is a little embarrassing. I’m working on it.

I understand that language and cultural identity are linked – but they are not the same thing. I mean, I was really bad at physics, too. It doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of gravity.

I recently came across an article about Chinese dyslexia. Researchers have found that while English speakers who have developmental dyslexia have a hard time connecting letters to their sounds, dyslexic Chinese children have a problem with Mandarin because of two separate, independent problems: Sound and visual perception. That’s because complex Chinese characters must be memorised, rather than sounded-out like words in alphabet-based languages.

Could I have been suffering from Chinese dyslexia? It would explain why after 12 years of Chinese lessons – which cruelly shaved an average of four years off the lives of every Chinese teacher and tutor who ever had contact with me – I still have trouble telling the difference between the numbers seven and nine on mahjong tiles.

Seriously, it only takes about 10 years to become a doctor and remove somebody’s spleen.

Chinese dyslexia would make embarrassing the entire Chinese race completely incidental – my hieroglyphs teacher in 300BC Egypt would have requested for an early mummification, too.

I just needed a little more help in school to know what that dodgy Xiao Mei was really up to that Sunday afternoon.

2 Responses

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