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SPEECH BY MR THARMAN SHANMUGARATNAM, SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR TRADE & INDUSTRY AND EDUCATION AT THE SEMINAR ON "THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SPEAKING SKILLS FOR LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT", ORGANISED BY THE TAMIL LANGUAGE AND CULTURE DIVISION OF NIE ON 15 FEB 2003 AT 0900 HRS AT LT 1, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION

 

Effective teaching and learning of the Mother Tongue: Innovating and Adapting to New Circumstances

Prof Leo Tan, Director/NIE, 
Lecturers and Teachers, 
Distinguished Guests, 
Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank NIE and the Tamil Language and Culture Division of NIE for inviting me to join you on this occasion. The Tamil Language and Culture Division has been a driving force in the teaching and learning of Tamil language. This half-day seminar is an example of the commendable effort that they have put into updating the knowledge of our Tamil language teachers, and upgrading their skills to enable them to address the changing needs of our Tamil language students.

Bilingualism and a Global City

Our bilingual policy has been and remains a key pillar of our education system, and of nation-building. It reflects our unique situation as a young, multiracial nation.

By learning their mother tongues, our students gain not just linguistic skills but access to the deep rivers of culture and values that we inherit. Each language is filled with concepts, rules and ways of finding meaning that reflect a distinct cultural outlook, a distinct way of looking at life. By requiring students to study their mother tongues, we retain and strengthen our identity as an Asian society, as well as our special character not just as an Asian society but a multicultural society.

The Tamil language has much significance in this regard. The ancient languages of India, Tamil and Sanskrit, are recognised by scholars as being as rich and as subtle as the other ancient languages of the world. Some Western scholars consider Tamil to be a finer language to think and speak in than any European language. Moreover, unlike Sanskrit which is no longer a spoken language, Tamil remains a living language. It has retained its youthfulness, with an abundant vocabulary to express modern ideas.

We cannot tell exactly how our identity as Singaporeans will evolve, how our different cultures will interact and mesh which each other, and how they will respond to an increasingly globalised world. But we do know that Singapore will be richer for having tapped into its mother cultures, and kept them relevant in a cosmopolitan setting. Our mother tongues, and the intermingling of our mother cultures, will be a source of vibrancy, and give us distinctiveness.

This will be more so as China and India emerge economically, modernise and expand their roles on the world stage. Our proximity to China and India, linguistically and culturally, will be a growing asset. Our position at the confluence of these two great rivers of Asian civilisation, gives us great advantage. It helps position Singapore at the junction of trade, services and investments, and of flows of people and ideas, to and from China and India. It will help us become a leading global city.

Changes in the Local Landscape for Language Learning

Locally, the landscape for mother tongue teaching has been fundamentally recast over the years. When the generation of Singaporeans now in their 60s was in school, Tamil language teaching was restricted to the private, Tamil medium vernacular schools. Their enrolment was small. Part-time TL classes in some English medium secondary schools were organised for the first time in 1955, and offered in many English medium primary schools only in the late 50s. Bilingualism was introduced in 1960, and in 1966 the mother tongue was made compulsory for pupils taking the PSLE. By 1970, more than 13,000 pupils were studying Tamil as a second language in some 100 English medium schools.

As more Indian parents, like those of the other communities, chose to place their children in English medium schools, enrolment in the vernacular schools fell. This caused the closure of all the Tamil medium primary schools by the late 1970s, and of the Umar Pulavar Tamil High School in 1983.

Not long after, in 1986, we made available the opportunity for students within the top 10% in the PSLE to take Tamil at the Higher Tamil level. This option has since been opened to those in the top 30%.

We have therefore come a long way. Bilingualism within an English medium school system has kept the learning of the mother tongues alive. Today, well over 50% of Indian students, and most Indian students of Tamil origin, study Tamil language in our primary and secondary schools.

However, while the opportunity to study Tamil in schools has grown dramatically over the decades, there is some paradox in the fact that a smaller proportion of families now speak Tamil at home. In the past, most of the Tamil population spoke the mother tongue at home and within the community. Even students who attended English medium schools and studied their mother tongue as a second language had the advantage of using the mother tongue at home. The use of the mother tongue at social functions was also prevalent. Students therefore had many opportunities to use their mother tongue in authentic and natural situations.

By the 1980s, the linguistic environment had changed. The use of English in our society, as a basic working skill in an internationalised economy, had increased. By the late 1990s, more than 50% of the students offering Tamil in school came from predominantly English speaking homes.

This means that a substantial proportion of the students who study Tamil no longer have adequate exposure to the language at home. We have to find ways to reinforce their motivation to learn the language, to approach it fearlessly, and to embrace and enjoy it. We have to help them acquire a sufficiently high level of proficiency in Tamil. This seminar's focus on the significance of speaking skills in language development is particularly relevant in this context.

Evolving Our Methods for Teaching the Mother Tongue

The constant challenge for teaching professionals is to adapt to changing circumstances, and find new, innovative strategies to help their students to learn effectively and encourage them to have a passion for what they learn. For mother tongue teachers, this is a more complex, multi-faceted challenge in view of Singapore's unique and evolving social context. For teaching to be effective, no strategies can be fixed for all time.

It is generally well-recognised now that for students to develop a passion for a language, they must find learning the language interesting, meaningful and relevant to the real-life situations they are familiar with. This is what motivated the recent revisions to the Tamil language syllabuses, which followed on the recommendations of the Review Committee on the Teaching and Learning of TL. The revisions, which most of you are familiar with, are centred on the following:

  • Revising the textbooks (primary TL and HTL and secondary TL) to make them relevant to current realities and new educational needs. 
  • Revising the TL syllabuses, and TL examination format, to place greater emphasis on listening and speaking skills.

New instructional materials have been developed based on these revised syllabuses, and have been implemented in phases starting from last year. As of today, the new textbooks have been completed and are being used in schools for Primary 1 to 3 and Secondary 1 to 2 Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) and Secondary 1 (Express) and Secondary 1 Higher Tamil. The new textbooks for all the primary and secondary levels will be in place by 2006. The TL examination format has already seen greater weight placed on listening and speaking skills, from 2002.

Our understanding continues to evolve on how students acquire languages. Two points are worth highlighting. The first is about providing a context that students find familiar or interesting. Research suggests that students learn more effectively and achieve facility in a language when their attention is focused on real-life situations. That was indeed how Singaporeans used to pick up languages outside of school - Chinese picking up Malay and occasionally Tamil through their daily interactions in the kampong or with the neighbourhood kids; Malay and Indian youth picking up Hokkien, and so on. And it is no doubt how the Chinese jewellers in Serangoon Road got to speak fluent Tamil. The basic principle the researchers underline is that learning is much better motivated when language tasks are given a context and when the information to be conveyed or received is of interest to the speaker and listener. Put simply, there is nothing like real life's real needs.

The second point is about the importance of learning through interaction. Communication - a primary objective of language learning - is intrinsically about people interacting with one another. In the language classroom, real interaction must involve the sharing of real information. The most successful language teachers are therefore those who are able to provide an environment, which engages students in lively interaction and exchange of information.

These points are reflected in the new curriculum. The revised TL syllabuses create opportunity for such interaction to take place through pair and group work. The syllabuses recognise the value of pair and group activities in sharpening not only competencies in oral communication but also social and thinking skills. The new instructional materials also include group work that uses co-operative learning techniques such as brainstorming, roundtable and think-pair-share. These are not just strategies for the classroom, but features of effective organisations in the workplace. Increasingly in the knowledge-based economy, the workplace comprises teams of interdependent persons, working on complex problems, which any individual alone would find hard to solve. Co-operative and team skills are an essential.

The curriculum also advocates helping students to become more actively involved in their own learning. One example of such an approach, that our teachers are trying out in the teaching of the mother tongue, is the Storyline approach. This method of teaching, which is project-based, allows students to participate actively in their learning. It encourages students to work in groups and to construct a storyline involving, say, a set of objects or a setting based on their experiences. Through the story that they construct, as they work on their projects, they learn vocabulary and grammar in a way that they find interesting and "real". The learning is task-based and the activities carried out are related to real-life situations and problems. The teachers who are involved in trying out this Storyline approach have given us positive feedback on its effectiveness in keeping students engaged and committed to their lessons.

Using English to Assist in Learning the Mother Tongue

Another area of experiment is in the use of English as a tool for effective learning of the mother tongue for certain groups of pupils, at the early stage - especially at Primary One. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of our students who learn Tamil now come from English speaking homes. To help some of these students learn Tamil fearlessly and enthusiastically, teachers may make selective use of the language that the students know, English, to approach the language that they need to learn, Tamil. Some teachers have indeed being doing so for some years on an informal basis. Making use of the known to access the unknown is a sound pedagogical principle that, in this case, is applied to the learning of a language that is unfamiliar to a certain group of students.

There has been positive feedback on this 'bilingual' approach to teaching the mother tongue. As you know, some of our schools are trying out such an approach in helping students from English speaking homes to learn Chinese more effectively. The project is being monitored, but the feedback from teachers and students has been very encouraging. There has also been a fair airing of views on the merits of this 'bilingual approach' to CL teaching. Some are concerned that the method will result in a 'sub-standard' CL. But there is also broad support for the introduction of this teaching method for Chinese students from English-speaking homes, at the beginning stage of their learning of CL.

This recent debate highlights the importance of certain basic principles that are inescapable in teaching and learning. First, there is no longer space for one-size-fits-all teaching methods. Teachers know that students differ in how they learn, depending on their backgrounds, experiences and inherent aptitudes. In language teaching, which method is most effective for a student will depend on his exposure to the language outside the school and especially at home. Further, we know from research on the brain that linguistic abilities are distinct from other intellectual abilities. Some students will be strong overall, but will have difficulty in learning languages naturally. We should try to find ways to help them acquire language competence.

A second, equally important principle is that whatever we do in education, we should remain pragmatic, not doctrinaire, in our approach. We should, as the Chinese would say, 'seek truth from facts'. Where the evidence shows that we are not achieving what we set out to gain, we change methods. Where the aims are no longer relevant to circumstances, we revise the aims. This is why we have continuously adapted and innovated within our education system, including the use of different ways of recognising ability and helping students learn at their own pace to go as far as they can. It is also why we are moving towards a more diverse secondary school, junior college and university system.

The 'bilingual' approach is one experiment in teaching the mother tongue, applied to students from English-speaking homes that have little exposure to their mother tongue. We may well be unusual, even unique, in using another language to help in the learning of a mother tongue. But we are also virtually unique in having a substantial proportion of our children coming from homes where their mother tongue is rarely spoken. The 'bilingual approach' is no substitute for the need for such parents and students to have a positive attitude towards the learning of the mother tongue. But where there is interest and a genuine desire to learn the language, we should find the most effective way to encourage students and minimise early hurdles. If it is clear that this bilingual approach is adopted at the beginning stages, with students who are unfamiliar with their mother tongue, and if the use of English diminishes as students become more familiar with the mother tongue, most teachers will I am sure accept that it is a useful part of the repertoire of skills needed for effective language teaching. It is akin to learning to ride a bicycle with the pair of small wheels at the back, that is, the "trainer wheels" that help the novice cyclist balance on the bicycle. Once the learner is able to keep his balance, the trainer wheels are removed.

The experience of one of our TL teachers, Mdm Sarojini Velayudam, is instructive. She had a class of primary one students who had very little or no knowledge of Tamil. At the outset, she used English to explain vocabulary and to give instructions to the students. She also allowed the students to use English when speaking to her. This took place in the first semester. As the students became more proficient in the use of Tamil in the second semester, she increased the use of Tamil and reduced the amount of English used. At the subsequent levels, the teaching was conducted fully in Tamil. Her students learned successfully because they were able to understand the lessons, and therefore feel engaged in their Tamil class.

Language teachers are aware that there are many ways of teaching a language. In the account that I just related, the teacher looked into her repertoire of skills and picked the approach she considered most appropriate to facilitate her students' understanding and keep them interested in learning their mother tongue. I think all good teachers do that.

Most effective language teachers know the advantage of being able to give meaning to unfamiliar vocabulary items through the use of English. Our new Tamil textbooks in fact provide a glossary of vocabulary items in English. This is a good move, and students have given us feedback that they find the glossary useful in helping them to understand what they read.

Teachers have to stay in touch with alternative teaching approaches. They must be able to breathe life into the language by using different approaches to enthuse and engage different types of learners. This need to keep up to date and to keep enhancing skills is why the Ministry has invested substantially in developing and retaining teachers.

The Ministry implemented Edu-Pac two years ago, in 2001. With Edu-Pac, all our teachers, including mother tongue teachers, can look forward to greater career development opportunities. Besides the Leadership Track, those whose heart is in teaching can look forward to progression up the Teaching Track as Senior Teachers and Master Teachers.

The Ministry also has in place various schemes to support our teachers in their professional development. For example, there is a Mother Tongue Language Award for non-graduate mother tongue language teachers to pursue a degree. Since its inception in 2000, six Tamil language teachers have been given the award to pursue degree courses in Tamil language. (MOE pays their tuition fees and allowances and also pays their salaries for two years.) There is also the Professional Development Leave scheme and other sponsorship and loan schemes to help our teachers upgrade themselves. The Ministry will continue to look at new possibilities, where resources allow, to help our teachers in their quest for professional upgrading.

As participants at today's seminar you are here because you are keen to upgrade yourselves professionally, to share with your counterparts successful approaches to teaching and to gain fresh insights into how you can revitalise teaching. I have no doubt that you will find the seminar useful and that you will be able to take back to your schools many useful ideas for implementation.

I would like to congratulate NIE and the organisers of this seminar on the good work that they are doing in the promotion of the effective teaching of Tamil. I have now the pleasure to declare the seminar open and to wish all of you a fruitful discussion.

Thank you.



 
 

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