Speech by Minister for Education Lawrence Wong at the 9th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium (e-MTLS)

Published Date: 29 August 2020 12:00 AM

News Speeches

1. Good morning everyone, 大家早上好。Selamat pagi. Vanakkam.

2. I am very happy to welcome you to the 9th annual Mother Tongue Languages Symposium (MTLS). MTLS is usually held in large exhibition halls, filled with interactive activities and vibrant exhibits. This year, given the COVID-19 situation, we have brought the symposium online, and straight into your homes. We hope this new, digital experience will help you uncover fresh possibilities for learning and using Mother Tongue Languages (MTLs), beyond the traditional classroom setting.

3. The Symposium is a collaboration between MOE and our network of education partners in the community. They have lent us their knowledge and expertise for the 18 sharing sessions and 35 gallery exhibits, which you can access online, at your own pace. I thank all our partners for their passion and commitment to the teaching and learning of MTLs.

4. I also want to thank the three Mother Tongue Language Learning and Promotion Committees for their tireless work to our youths and students to help them love their MTLs. Special thanks to Ms Low Yen Ling and Dr Faishal Ibrahim, the outgoing chairpersons of the Chinese and Malay Language Committees respectively, for their five years of service. Mr Vikram Nair continues to serve as the chairman of the Tamil Language Committee and I would like to thank him for his 10 years of service. Finally, a warm welcome to Ms Sun Xue Ling and Dr Maliki Osman, the new chairpersons of the Chinese and Malay Language Committee respectively.

5. To all our MTL teachers, thank you for your dedication and outstanding contributions to MTL learning – especially in this trying season. I hope the Symposium gives you new ideas and inspiration.

Bilingualism in Singapore

6. Bilingualism is a hallmark of our education system. Since the 1960s, almost everyone who went to school in Singapore has learnt two languages – English and a Mother Tongue. After decades of the bilingual policy, most people can appreciate and personally attest to the benefits of learning two languages.

7. First, there is plenty of evidence that learning two languages leads to better cognitive and social emotional skills in children.

  1. Multiple studies have shown that bilingual children have better Executive Function than monolingual children. Executive Function refers to cognitive skills such as working memory, inhibition, and attention switching. It is what help us multi-task, concentrate our attention on complex tasks.
  2. There is also evidence which suggests that bilingualism helps social skills in young children. We all know that to fully appreciate what others are saying, you must not only understand the language they use, but also be able to see things from their perspective. A study by psychologists from the University of Chicago found that bilingual children were better able to see things from different perspectives compared to monolingual children.

8. A second benefit of bilingualism is that it can unlock more opportunities, especially with the rise of China, India, and other Asian countries.

  1. Speaking another language, especially a widely used language, can give you an advantage in your career. Our local singers are a very visible example of this. Many of them have made it big overseas for singing in their MTL – JJ Lin, Nathan Hartono, Aisyah Aziz, to name a few.
  2. Whenever I go for official trips in China, I would make a point to meet with Singaporeans working there. Some tell me that they had not done so well in Mandarin during their school years. But studying the language gave them a foundation, which allowed them to become fluent in the language very quickly once they were based in China.

9. But we do not invest in our MTLs merely to reap these practical benefits. In 1966, our second year as an independent country, our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew laid out his vision for a bilingual Singapore. He said: "To each what he originally had – his culture, his language, a link with his past, his heritage. And to each something added, so that they can meet and talk and understand, laugh at the same things, be pained and disturbed by the same things, and eventually integrate into one society."

10. Our bilingual policy has helped us move closer to this vision.

  1. We are a modern global city, with English as our gateway to the world, and the common language that brings us together.
  2. We are also a multi-racial society, with each race able to retain its own culture, heritage and traditions, closely tied to our MTLs.
  3. We call ourselves Singaporean first, but we also have distinctive Singaporean variants of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian cultures which are part of our multicultural identity.
  4. Our bilingual policy is an important way to strengthen this multi-racial and multicultural ethos, and to help us make better sense of who we are as Singaporeans.

11. Even as bilingualism remains a cornerstone of our education system, the trends in language use within Singapore society are mixed.

12. In June this year, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) published findings from a survey of 4,000 Singapore residents on language use.

  1. On the whole, the majority of Singaporeans are confident in speaking English and their Mother Tongues. 78% of survey respondents said they could speak English "well" or "very well". For MTLs, 80% of Chinese respondents, 95% of Malay respondents, and 75% of ethnic Tamil respondents said they could speak their respective MTLs "well" or "very well".
  2. However, youths aged 18 – 25 reported stronger spoken English proficiency and slightly weaker MTL proficiency, compared to those who are older.

13. MOE's annual surveys of Primary One children on their home language environments also have mixed findings. Around 7 in 10 speak mainly English at home, and this proportion has increased over the last 20 years. But it is encouraging to know that the proportion who are bilingual, meaning they use both English and MTL at home, has increased from 8 in 10 in the 1990s, to 9 in 10 today.

Helping All Students Learn Mother Tongue Languages

14. In view of these trends, it is not surprising that we see a variance in MTL proficiency. Among our students, there are some at an advanced level comparable to the top users from MTL-speaking regions, and others who need more help and support.

15. Not every child will be able to master their MTL at the highest level. Neither do we need them to. What we ask is that each child tries their best, learns their MTL to as high a proficiency as possible, and for as long as they can. Over the years, MOE has therefore increased the range of different programmes to support students to learn their MTLs, regardless of their level of proficiency.

16. We are also increasing our efforts to promote MTL learning in the early years, as it is more effective to start young.

MTL Learning in the Early Years

17. In the early years, parents are a key partner for MTL learning. Multiple studies have shown that a rich language environment at home helps young children pick up new languages.

18. Parents can enrich their children's language environment by speaking MTL at home, or reading MTL books together.

  1. If you are a parent looking for ideas, do check out the online gallery at this Symposium. It contains many fun and simple activities to do with your child, suggested by our schools and community partners.
  2. Our colleagues at the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism have also launched a #IAmBilingualSG Call for Projects. Successful applicants will receive funding to develop a wider variety of resources that parents can tap on. And I certainly look forward to the new projects.

19. Together with parents, our preschools also play a critical role in supporting early bilingualism.

  1. MOE Kindergartens are committed to developing bilingual learners, and they offer all three official MTLs.
  2. Many preschool operators also offer MTL classes, and the Anchor Operators like PCF Sparkletots have been increasing the number of preschools offering Malay and Tamil classes.

20. It takes a lot of creativity and energy to teach young children a new language. Our pre-school teachers are committed in engaging young children in MTL lessons and nurturing their love for languages. To recognise them, we give out the Outstanding Preschool MTL Teacher Awards every year. This year, 14 teachers will receive the award. Congratulations to all our award winners! Well done!

MTL Programmes in Schools

21. For our primary and secondary school students, a key approach is to ensure that MTL lessons are interesting and relatable. That's why we refreshed the MTL curriculum for primary students in 2015, and launched a revised curriculum for secondary students last month.

22. The new secondary MTL curriculum has 4 key features:

  1. First, more deliberate infusion of cultural knowledge and appreciation;
  2. Second, greater use of contemporary materials to contextualise students' learning;
  3. Third, more exposure to and engagement with literary texts; and
  4. Fourth, increased integration of ICT-enabled lessons for greater interactivity and customisation.

23. MOE piloted the new curriculum with 68 schools earlier. And I'm glad the students found the contemporary scenarios especially engaging.

  1. For example, the lesson unit on "Needs and Wants" in the Sec 1 Malay curriculum contains an activity on fashion choices. Students were shown posts by social media influencers on the latest fashion trends, as well as information on the growth of sweatshops overseas to support fast fashion.
  2. They were then asked to think about the impact of their fashion choices, before deciding which fashion items to purchase.
  3. The students were able to relate to the topic easily. They not only had a chance to practise their MTL, but could also learn more about current affairs, apply their minds critically to reach an informed decision.

24. The new MTL curriculum contains many other engaging activities and elements which makes language learning come to life. I'm confident that teachers and students will enjoy exploring the new syllabus and materials.

Differentiated Programmes to support Diverse Learners

25. For students who are strong in MTL, MOE encourages them to go deeper in their study of the language.

  1. At the primary level, students can take on Higher Mother Tongue at the upper primary years.
  2. At the secondary and Junior College (JC) levels, students can sign up for Language Elective Programmes (LEPs) in Chinese, Malay and Tamil. This year, we expanded LEP for JC students, and introduced LEPs for secondary schools. There are a total of 232 JC LEP students this year and 254 LEP-Secondary students.

26. There is also extra support and customisation for those who face challenges learning MTLs. For example, we offer Foundation MTL and MTL "B" in primary and secondary school respectively.

27. This year, we have also started the next phase of implementation of the Mother Tongue Support Programme (MTSP) for Primary 3 and 4 students. Most of us are familiar with the Learning Support Programmes for English and Math for lower primary students, where students who need more guidance are taught in small groups. The MTSP is the MTL version of this. Students receive differentiated instruction in smaller classes, using resources specially produced by MOE.

28. Currently, a total of 157 schools are offering MTSP. Feedback has been positive. We find that the students are more confident in listening, speaking and reading, and they are showing greater motivation in learning their MTLs. By 2021, P3 students in all primary schools will be able to benefit from the MTSP. By 2022, all P4 students will do so as well.

29. The MTSP is an important new pillar in our MTL ecosystem. It reflects our belief that every student can approach their MTL with confidence, given the right support. No student should feel that my "Mother Tongue Language is not for me". Overcoming difficulties, including what may seem to be a difficult language, is an essential part of learning. Once our students get the hang of it, the language will unlock a rich culture and new opportunities for them, and will serve them well for life.

New Ways of Teaching and Learning Mother Tongue Languages

30. Finally, we will press on to support MTL learning in new ways even in the face of disruptions.

31. COVID-19 is the obvious game-changer this year. Once Circuit Breaker was announced, Home-Based Learning became the new normal. Our schools and community partners had to go digital and come up with new materials, programmes and strategies. This was not an easy task. Lots of imagination and hard work was needed, and often in a short amount of time.

32. But our MTL teachers and community partners were most certainly up to the task. For example:

  1. The Chinese Language Learning and Promotion Committee worked with the Chinese Arts Groups to make theatre productions available online, and even arranged 'live' virtual sessions for the students to interact with performers.
  2. The Malay Language Learning and Promotion Committee moved their flagship programme, Perkasa Warisan, to social media. Parents could go on Instagram to make use of trending templates and light-hearted activities, to inject fun while engaging their children in MTL learning at home.
  3. The Tamil Language Learning and Promotion Committee collaborated with various arts groups to launch a range of online programmes, such as digital story-telling for younger students, and mobile short-film making workshops for Pre-University, JC, Polytechnic and ITE students.

33. The creativity and dedication of our teachers and community partners in keeping MTL learning alive in these trying times is truly inspiring.

34. It gives me great confidence that we can always find ways for MTLs to thrive as a living language in our homes, schools and community, no matter what comes our way.


35. For this year's Symposium, the organising team has created an online MTL Wonderland, which you can enter from the comfort of your home.

36. I hope you find new inspiration to turn your home, classroom or online space into your own mini MTL Wonderland, where your children and students can discover the joys of learning MTL, and grow into confident, bilingual learners.

37. I wish you all a fruitful experience at this 9th MTL Symposium.

38. Thank you. 谢谢。Terima kasih. Nandri.

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