Remarks by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the Press Conference on Teaching of Mother Tongue Language on 11 May 2010

There were strong reactions to my interview three weeks ago. Today, I will clarify any misunderstanding by outlining more fully what MOE’s plans are regarding Mother Tongue Languages (MTL). I will make the following points:

  • MOE is not reducing the weighting of MTL in PSLE. I believe that MTL are important to all Singaporeans and to our future.
  • The MTL Review Committee’s goal is to maintain our bilingual policy, not weaken it. The Committee has some initial ideas, which I will outline.
  • The review must cover the exam system. It is a critical piece that complements the other initiatives to strengthen MTL teaching.

In my interview, I said MOE was looking at options to address the over-emphasis on exams, where “MTL counts for so much in the PSLE.” Singaporeans became concerned that MOE was proposing to reduce the weighting of MTL in PSLE. This is not the case. The MTL Review Committee has not proposed any change to the PSLE scoring system. But I should have chosen my words more carefully and apologise for creating that wrong impression.

Despite the misunderstanding, the outpouring of support for MTL teaching to remain a cornerstone of our education system is gratifying. MOE shares this same goal. This is the reason why I appointed an MTL Review Committee headed by DGE to set a road map for the next 10 to 15 years. We need to start now, because their recommendations will take many years to implement. We have to take into account the changing language environment and the wider spread of language backgrounds and abilities among future cohorts of students.

DGE’s Committee has been studying best practices around the world. All their studies confirm this essential point: to be effective for a broad spread of students, language teaching should aim to produce proficient users. This means teaching students to communicate with others, listen and read with understanding, and present in spoken and written forms. We have to make their learning relevant in different real life situations. This is the first requirement before the language can transmit heritage and cultural values, which we also wish it to do. To be more effective in our MTL teaching to all students, both strong and weak, we therefore have to change the way we teach, examine and grade our students.

Two general directions are clear. First, we need more differentiated teaching—i.e. teaching different groups of students to the appropriate levels. Students who are weaker in MTL will benefit from this. Second, our system needs to be more proficiency based—i.e. geared to recognise and reward students when they attain specific proficiency levels. For example, China’s HSK is one such system of proficiency levels. (A description of HSK proficiency levels is provided in the Annex).

This new approach will need more resources. We will need better teacher-student ratios, which means recruiting more MTL teachers. In-service teachers will need retraining. The curriculum has to be expanded with new textbooks and more IT modules and other digital resources.

Our exams must also change. I shared what parents and teachers said, “If your assessment system doesn’t change, even if you change teaching methods, it’s unlikely to achieve the goal of making MTL more functional, more usable, more alive for the student”.

Motivating students solely through exams is not sustainable and discourages many students who actually have done quite well in their MTL. The Singapore Chinese Teachers Union agreed with me that exams should not be the main driving force. So did teachers from the Malay and Tamil language unions, when they met SPS Masagos and SMS Iswaran. Students can count on our MTL teachers who are passionate about their mission and have been working doubly hard to maintain MTL standards in schools. They too want to move away from an over-emphasis on exam performance as it does not help in their goal to get as many students possible to be proficient in MTL.

How we then reward effort is important. The overall MTL assessment should depend more on how they would use the language in real life, e.g. oral and practical communication skills, reading and responding to mails and messages, understanding notices, reading newspapers, or giving short presentations. In written exams, students should be able to use IT tools, as in real life.

This shift to a more proficiency-based approach should not lower standards or reduce the incentive for our students to learn MTL. On the contrary, well-defined proficiency-based syllabi and exams will set clear and appropriate standards for students to aim for. The incentives to do well will also remain. Those who demonstrate higher proficiency deserve to score higher. Those who do not put in the effort should not be rewarded. So, students will still need to do well in their MTL to get into their school of choice.

I have described very broadly what the Review Committee is working on. DGE’s Committee has to translate these principles into a workable curriculum and detailed course materials and tests for 500,000 students. This will take many months and the Committee will report its progress in stages. We should give DGE’s Committee time to carry on their work professionally. We will certainly discuss the proposals with the many stakeholders within the community.

This is a long term endeavour. Any revised curriculum will have to be introduced progressively. So a revised PSLE format will only be implemented several years after that. The present batches of primary students will therefore not be affected by these changes and need not be worried. But we need to start now.

There is tremendous support for MTL learning as a vital part of our education system. We want all students to learn their MTL effectively, and make the best use of the time and effort they put into learning the MT. We want them to use it in their daily lives, and through it, discover the benefits of being bilingual. MOE will work with the community to help as many children as possible to love their Mother Tongue Languages, then pass it on to the next generation to keep them alive in Singapore.

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HSK Proficiency Levels

Level Attained Proficiency Description
HSK Level 6 Can easily understand what they read and listen and express themselves fluently in written and oral Chinese.
HSK Level 5 Can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, appreciate Chinese films and television, and are able to write and deliver a full speech.
HSK Level 4 Can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese and are able to communicate with native speakers.
HSK Level 3 Can complete basic communication tasks in daily life, study and work. If travelling in China, Level 3 can handle most communication tasks they encounter.
HSK Level 2 Can communicate simple and directly on daily topics they are familiar with. Level 2 have reached the advanced stage of beginner level.
HSK Level 1 Can understand and use simple words and sentences to fulfil specific communication needs and have a foundation for the further study of Chinese.