Speech by Mr Chee Hong Tat, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at the 8th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium, at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre

Published Date: 24 August 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Minister Ong Ye Kung, Parliamentary Colleagues

Chairpersons and Members of the Mother Tongue Language Learning and Promotion Committees

Educators, parents, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1. Good morning. 早上好。Selamat Pagi. Vanakkam. It always makes me smile to see young children on stage, especially when they are performing in our Mother Tongue Languages (MTLs).

2. Minister has spoken about the importance of MTL learning and the key considerations and approaches to promoting MTLs. I will now elaborate on the curriculum changes and what we have been doing in MOE and our schools.

3. Bilingualism is a cornerstone of Singapore’s education system. It is part of our cultural DNA and who we are as a multi-racial society. It shapes our upbringing and our values as Singaporeans.

4. Over the years, more families in Singapore speak mostly English at home. At the same time, more parents are now bilingual. So while they may speak mostly English at home, they are also able to converse with their children and read to them in MTL. Some people may ask if there is still a need to emphasise the learning of our MTLs, since English has become the global lingua franca. I think the answer is a definite “yes” and perhaps even more so in the current globalised environment where different societies are connected via the Internet. And as Minister said, as we spread our wings, we need to have deep roots. In one of his early speeches as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew touched on the value of learning Mother Tongue in Singapore. And this is what he said:

“…it is not just learning the language. With language goes the fables and proverbs. It is the learning of a whole value system, a whole philosophy of life”

5. While our learning approaches have evolved over the years, the principles that underpin our bilingual policy have remained unchanged. English is a useful language that connects Singapore with the rest of the world. It is also a common language for communicating with our fellow Singaporeans from other ethnic groups. Our MTLs serve the important role of preserving our heritage, as well as the values and culture of our various ethnic communities. Knowing an additional language is like opening the door to a new dimension and having a different way of thinking and looking at the world. This is why we have persisted in maintaining bilingualism over the years, despite the large amount of effort required from our teachers and our students compared to a monolingual education system.

Pre-School Mother Tongue Language Education

6. There is a saying in Chinese, 人生百年, 立于幼学, meaning “The journey of life is long and the lessons learned in childhood will set its direction”. We should start our children young in their MTL learning, preferably as a toddler when the brain is at its most nimble in absorbing and retaining knowledge, especially languages.

7. MOE is committed to nurturing early childhood bilingualism. The Starlight Literacy Programme, offered at all MOE Kindergartens, focuses on developing listening, speaking, and early literacy skills in both English and our MTLs. The students pick up linguistic skills and learn more about culture and values in a fun way. We saw this in the young silat performers from MOE Kindergarten @ Waterway earlier.

8. A key success factor of our early childhood language education is the quality and passion of our pre-school teachers. I would like to take this opportunity to thank and honour them. As the saying in Tamil goes, elutharivithavan iraivan aavan, teachers are highly regarded and it is for very good reasons. There are similar sayings in English, Chinese and Malay which honour our teachers and the important roles they play.

9. Our dedicated MTL teachers continuously strive to support, engage, and open our children’s eyes to the joys of learning and loving their mother tongues. Your commitment and hard work enable our students to enjoy learning their MTLs which they can use in daily interactions and throughout their life. Please join me in thanking our MTL teachers and giving all of them a round of applause.

A Garden of Joyful Discovery

10. Early exposure alone is not enough. As parents and educators, we know that intrinsic motivation and sustained interest are what drive learning. This is why the theme for this year’s symposium is “A Garden for Joyful Discovery”. It reflects our wish to continue providing a conducive and vibrant environment both in and beyond schools to spread the joy of learning and discovery to our children in learning their mother tongue.

11. The achievements from our students that we see at today’s symposium is a result of the collaborative efforts of our schools and community partners, and also how the teaching and learning of MTL has evolved over time to nurture the joy of learning. These curriculum changes support and reinforce the school-based programmes and ground-up initiatives from our educators and community partners.

Primary Mother Tongue Language Curriculum

12. For example, our primary MTL curriculum and lessons have changed over the years, including the introduction of many interesting practices in the classrooms.

13. We launched the new primary MTL curriculum in 2015 to develop our students to become confident and effective communicators. We achieve this outcome by building language competencies through enhancing our students’ skills in listening, reading, speaking and writing. Greater emphasis has been placed on interaction skills, as these are important to give our young learners more confidence to use their MTLs in daily interactions. If they speak and write the language more frequently, they will become more fluent and build up stronger capabilities.

14. At Tampines Primary School, students learn Malay by playing online games through an app called Seesaw. Students at Hong Wen Primary School reinforce their Chinese language competencies and learn the Chinese culture through their very own Recess Carnival. Greendale Primary School encourages lower primary pupils to verbalise their understanding and express their opinions in Tamil through the use of a tool called Story Map. These schools are all here today at the exhibition area to tell us more about their exciting activities. So do visit their booths later to give them your support, and you might come up with your own innovative ideas after learning from their experiences!

15. Since the launch of the revised primary MTL curriculum in 2015, we have received positive feedback from teachers, students and parents. Mdm Letchimi Marimuthu, a Lead teacher for Tamil Language at Woodlands Primary School, shared that the content in the new curriculum is well-pitched and allows her students to relate their learning to real-life experiences. Her students also enjoy the stories in the textbooks and these encourage them to read further – not just in the classrooms, but also to read further at their own time at home.

Secondary Mother Tongue Language Curriculum

16. Riding on the positive feedback on the primary curriculum, we are also reviewing the secondary MTL curriculum. This will be launched in 2021. The new secondary MTL curriculum will continue to be guided by students’ developmental progression in language acquisition. It will have the following four distinct features:

  • First, greater infusion of cultural knowledge and appreciation;

  • Second, supplement of contemporary materials to contextualise students’ learning;

  • Third, more exposure to stories and using stories to enhance language learning; and

  • Finally, integration of ICT-enabled lessons for better interactivity and ease of customisation.

Please allow me to further explain each of these features in greater detail.

Infusion of cultural knowledge and appreciation

17. First, greater infusion of cultural knowledge and cultural appreciation in the curriculum. Our MTLs are crucial in helping us connect with our cultures, values and heritage. Beyond learning the language, we want our students to understand Singapore and understand the world through the culture embedded in our MTLs. Not only will this contribute to a stronger sense of national and cultural identity, it will provide a world-view that complements the perspectives of English-speaking societies, allowing us to better understand global developments and connect with different parts of the world. We will develop these competencies and values by infusing cultural knowledge and promoting discussion on festivities, traditions, architecture and even pop culture including Mandopop and Xinyao, songs that are now written in our MTLs – and we will embed these in our MTL curriculum to make lessons more interesting and engaging for our students.

18. Our curriculum will also provide real-life context to allow our students to apply what they learn in practical ways. Let me illustrate this with an example from our Malay Language curriculum. Ketupat, the Malay rice cake, has always been an integral part of Malay traditional culture. In the past, the ketupat casings were handwoven. Today, ready-made casings can be bought easily, so ketupat weaving has become less common. Wrapping the ketupat involves weaving of each ‘janur’ or young coconut leaf to form the house of the ketupat, symbolising how people from different walks of life integrate and sustain harmony in a community. By infusing knowledge about our MTL cultures in our curriculum, students pick up vocabulary linked to such cultural practices, hence, there’s a context and a way to apply what they have learnt. They also gain deeper knowledge and understand the significance of these traditions, enabling them to better appreciate and keep our MTLs and cultures alive.

Supplement of contemporary/current affairs materials

19. Second, supplementing the learning of MTL with the use of contemporary and current affairs materials. These provide a rich source of content to enrich our students’ learning and help them appreciate the relevance of their MTLs in the globally-connected world around them.

20. For instance, there is so much cultural and human values embedded in our Tamil folk songs and the famous literary works of Sangam Literature. They are an important component of our curriculum. We need to use different ways to reach out to our students and build up their interest in these literary assets. For example, the verse – Yayum nyayum yaaragiyaro from a classical literary text, Kurunthogai written in 300 BC, became known to our youth when it was featured as a recent Tamil movie song.

More exposure to stories

21. Third, we will have more exposure to stories in MTL lessons. Stories play a vital role in education, as they can help to shape our students’ growth and development. Students who regularly read fiction books or who are exposed to fiction and literature develop greater empathy and are better able to relate to others who have different perspectives and feelings. Stories also make language learning more fun and engaging.

22. The 2021 secondary MTL curriculum will include more stories. Based on feedback from our students, we have selected stories from different genres that appeal to the younger generation, and these include adventure, mystery, myths and legends.

23. Our students must also be exposed to classical texts to better appreciate how our MTLs, values and cultures have changed over time. We will include adapted texts from the Four Classic Chinese Novels (Journey to the West 西游记, Water Margin 水浒传, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义and Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦) for Chinese, the Pahlawan Panggung anthology for Malay and the Sanga Ilakkiyam for Tamil. We hope such exposure will encourage our students to read the original texts and other literary works written in their mother tongue.

Integration of ICT-enabled lessons

24. Fourth, there will be greater integration of ICT into MTL lessons. The use of technology can help to engage our students, deepen their learning while developing future-ready competencies such as communicating and collaborating with others. ICT can also be harnessed to inject fun and interactive elements in our MTL lessons, making them more interesting for different groups of students.

25. Teachers have been utilising iMTL Collaborative Learning Tools to help students enhance their MTL writing skills. A number of schools have gone a step further to develop their own mobile applications. I applaud their innovation and creativity and I believe our teachers and students are ready for more.

26. We will provide more digital resources in the 2021 secondary MTL curriculum, such as videos, web-based language games and e-books via Student Learning Space (SLS). Teachers and students can access these materials for your MTL lessons. For example, the Chinese curriculum team in MOE is currently exploring an e-learning dictionary customised for students in Singapore. This resource, which focuses on helping students recognise Chinese characters and build up their vocabulary, contains words and sentences learnt in primary and secondary school. In this way, when students encounter new words, they can make connections with their prior knowledge and learn more at their own time and convenience.

27. The curriculum changes that I have described, will enable our students to build a strong foundation in their MTLs and develop greater confidence in using these languages in their daily lives. I think this is very important. Indeed, the learning of languages must not stop when one leaves school. Language learning is an essential skill for all and for life. It is a life-long journey and as we learn more, we will broaden our horizons and more opportunities and more doors will open up.

28. Let me conclude by thanking all of you for attending today’s symposium. Your presence affirms our shared commitment in promoting a passion for lifelong learning of MTLs.

29. I wish everyone good health and success. Thank you.

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