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Opening Address by Minister for Education, Mr Chan Chun Sing, at the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium 2023

Published Date: 26 August 2023 09:50 AM

News Speeches

1. Good morning. 大家早上好. Selamat pagi. Vanakkam. I am delighted to be here today at the opening of the first full-scale face-to-face Mother Tongue Languages Symposium since 2019.

2. At today's symposium, we have a total of 45 sharing sessions and workshops, and 45 exhibition booths put up by 15 schools, 9 preschools and 16 partners for participants to learn more about our efforts to promote Mother Tongue Languages in Singapore. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all educators, stakeholders, and community partners for their commitment to promote the learning of our Mother Tongue Languages (MTL) and for making today's event possible.

Bilingualism Remains Important Amid Challenges

3. Bilingualism is the cornerstone of our education. It is an important part of our Singapore identity.

  1. It has contributed to the growth of Singapore as a cosmopolitan city that embraces diversity and attracts people from both the East and the West.
  2. While English is used for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another and plugs us into the global economy, our Mother Tongue Languages anchor us in our cultural identity, preserve our cultural ballast and advantages to tap on opportunities in Asia.
  3. Bilingualism allows Singaporeans to connect with people across countries and cultures, while having a sense of confidence of who we are and our place in a globalised world.

4. We know the value of bilingualism for us as individuals and as a nation. Yet, challenges line the road ahead for us to remain bilingual, particularly to be proficient in our Mother Tongue Languages.

  1. Over the last decade, we have seen a substantial shift to English as the language most frequently spoken at home. It has risen from a third in 2010 to nearing half in 2020.
  2. A survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies has found more Singaporeans reporting the ability to speak English well in 2018 than in 2013.1 This is congruent with the results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) for the year 2021. Our primary four students have demonstrated increasingly higher ability in English language over the years.
  3. In comparison, there is some decline in the self-reported proficiency in Mother Tongue languages. This suggests that our young are potentially more exposed to Englishspeaking households, environments, and media, and have much lower exposure to Mother Tongue languages in context.
  4. Many parents value the importance of bilingualism but struggle to create conducive environments for their children to develop bilingual capabilities. Some even "outsource" language learning to enrichment centres.
  5. Consequently, we have a middle-aged generation who is generally bilingual, and a younger population who are increasingly more proficient in their English.
  6. The same survey also found that more than a third of Singaporeans identify the most with English. This has grown at the expense of those who identify more with the Mother Tongue languages.

5. This is a major concern for all of us. If we do not do anything, we will start to lose our bilingualism edge. We will have to be proactive and do more in the promotion of our Mother Tongue Languages. Our educators, parents, and stakeholders must work together to create the necessary environment for the learning of Mother Tongue languages to flourish.

Start Young, Learn for Life

6. We need to intentionally build the foundation years for the learning of Mother Tongue languages.

  1. In fact, studies have shown that a solid grounding in Mother Tongue languages established from a young age can help one rebound, pick up, or even transcend, earlier abilities in the language when we need to do so in later parts of our lives.
  2. When we are young, the more time we spend on Mother Tongue languages, the greater the impact on our ability to attain proficiency in them.

7. So we need to start young. I would like to assure our parents that even if more time is devoted to Mother Tongue in the early years, it is unlikely to significantly affect our students' English proficiency in the long term.

  1. Young children who primarily use their Mother Tongue languages might initially show weaker English skills compared to those who exclusively use English at home.
  2. However, our research has shown the brain's neuroplasticity, its capacity to adapt, comes into play. As these children are gradually exposed to the extensive use of English in school and society, their brains will adjust, and their English proficiency will improve over time.

8. We have been investing in exposing our children to their Mother Tongue languages from young, through preschools and homes. Today, we recognise outstanding preschool Mother Tongue teachers who have used engaging pedagogies for young children to learn, use and love the language. These teachers have also built strong partnerships with parents to support the children's learning.

  1. For instance, Ms Sangeetha provides timely updates that include photos and write-ups for parents to know their child's learning progress.
  2. Ms Li Yinghua shares fun ideas with parents to learn and use Chinese with their children at home. One of the activities is a storytelling game, 故事接龙, where parents co-create stories with their children.
  3. Similarly, Mdm Noraini provides strategies and take-home kits for parents to make learning Mother Tongue languages fun at home.
  4. I like to congratulate the three of them and the other teachers who are receiving the award today. Thank you very much for exploring new approaches.

9. Finally, the learning and usage of our Mother Tongue languages should not stop when we graduate from school.

10. Our relationship with bilingualism varies over the course of our life, given that we have diverse backgrounds, priorities, and interests when we are at different life stages.

  1. I would like to share the example of Mr Ong Kah Jing who is a local documentary filmmaker. Mr Ong offered Chinese Language 'B' and struggled with the language when he was in school. Now at the age of 30, to be a better storyteller, he set a goal to improve his Chinese. He worked hard and took this year's O-Level Chinese examination in June.
  2. You can see on TikTok how he had spent months brushing up his Chinese. He even published a commentary on Lianhe Zaobao to encourage adults to learn Mother Tongue. I read it and it is a well-written piece. He could not have done this without his foundation in the language.
  3. His results were released last week. I would like to congratulate him not just for his achievement in the examination, but also for his mindset and perseverance.

11. I hope his story and others like him can inspire more adult Singaporeans to learn and use our Mother Tongue languages for life.

2024 Primary Mother Tongue Language Curriculum Will Help Students Experience the Joy of Learning Mtl in and Out of the Classroom

12. When our preschoolers progress to primary schools next year, they will be experiencing something new. Today, we are all excited to launch the new 2024 Mother Tongue Languages curriculum today.

13. MOE has reviewed the current Primary Mother Tongue Languages curriculum with feedback from over 11,000 students, 1,000 teachers, and 4,000 parents.

14. While their feedback was very positive, they observed that students had limited opportunities to learn and use Mother Tongue beyond the classroom. The new curriculum will thus place greater focus for students to experience the joy of learning and using Mother Tongue language in and out of the classroom. We will achieve this through four key features.

15. First, there will be greater emphasis on 21st century competencies. The curriculum will foreground local ethnic cultures within each Mother Tongue but also promote crosscultural literacy.

  1. For example, in the P1 Malay textbook, students will be introduced to Popiah as one of our local delights. One of the characters who is from the Philippines will introduce readers to their version of spring roll called Lumpia.
  2. Similarly, for Tamil, students will learn about Top spinning, and how tops feature culturally across India, Malaysia, and China.
  3. Through these examples, students will better appreciate cross-cultural similarities, and better connect to their friends in the region.

16. Second, we will use multi-modal approaches to support students through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means.

  1. For example, to promote reading in and out of class, we will introduce big books and small readers in both printed and digital forms. With interactive functions and digital narration, students can read the e-books on their own at home.
  2. We have also created an electronic Tamil reading pen. Students can simply tap on word cards with the pen to hear the correct pronunciation of the word. This is a first-of-its-kind tool for Tamil language learning in Singapore.
  3. Chinese language students can play games like "spot-thedifference" to improve word recognition by associating with visual images.
  4. Every unit in Malay lessons will start with a song. Students can acquire vocabulary through singing and body movement. The same vocabulary will then be reinforced in other parts of the unit.

17. Third, we will continue to make learning more authentic.

  1. Students will learn to describe their daily routines in their Mother Tongue, interact with others and inculcate good habits. For example, students will learn how to use Malay to buy food in the canteen during recess.
  2. There will also be opportunities for students to express themselves using their Mother Tongue languages. For example, students will write their own song lyrics and poems, and write social media posts to share their thoughts and ideas.

18. Lastly, the new curriculum will incorporate greater use of technology to enhance engagement and self-directed learning.

  1. For example, we will use animated videos to support students' learning of Hanyu Pinyin. The main character in the animation will lead students through the pronunciation of Chinese characters through stories injected with fun and humour.
  2. For Tamil, besides the Augmented Reality (AR) experiences that you saw earlier in the opening video, we will also be producing tongue placement animations. These will help students acquire better pronunciation of Tamil letters and words.
  3. Within the Student Learning Space (SLS), you have also seen how we have incorporated Speech Evaluation and Text-to-Speech functions for Mother Tongue languages. These functions will aid students in reading, word recognition, provide them with automated feedback for oral practices, and encourage self-directed learning.

19. We are confident that students will enjoy our refreshed curriculum. We have gotten positive feedback in our trials so far. Please visit the curriculum booth later to experience some of these resources. Parents can use them to accompany your children to learn and use the language at home.

20. Beyond refreshing our curriculum, we will also continue to encourage all students to enjoy learning our Mother Tongue Languages.

  1. Since 2022, our schools have started offering Higher Mother Tongue at Primary 3 for students who have shown strengths in the subject. The strong interest of our students has been most heartening.
  2. For students who need more scaffolding, the Mother Tongue Support Programme will help them build a stronger literacy foundation in smaller group settings with their teachers. No one will be left behind.

Collective and Sustained Efforts of Various Stakeholders

21. While MOE is committed to promoting the learning of Mother Tongue Languages, this remains a collective effort for all of us in Singapore. MOE will work with stakeholders to co-create solutions to meet our evolving needs.

  1. MOE is working with industry partners to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution to support young learners in developing oracy skills in out-of-school contexts. This will be especially helpful for families that require support in Mother Tongue exposure for their children.
  2. Our universities and polytechnics offer various Mother Tongue language-related courses. The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) has just announced its new full-time Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Studies, available from Academic Year 2024. This will provide our students with one more option to deepen their study in the Chinese Language.
  3. Ground-up efforts can also make a difference too. Last year, I spoke about the Chinese Hackers who are active on TikTok. This year, I came across a YouTube channel "Xiao Ming's Right Brain" (小明的右脑). The channel is started by two Chinese Literature students from one of our schools. The channel offers Chinese edutainment content on literary ideas and concepts in drama, novels, poems, and movies. There is even a series of video clips based on the prescribed texts in our literature syllabus to aid students in their study. This is an example of a fun and engaging ground-up approach to promote the learning of Mother Tongue Languages.

22. Some say that the best school is at home. Indeed, parents are the most important partners when it comes to supporting children in the learning of Mother Tongue Languages. It can happen before, during, or beyond the schooling years.

  1. Foster a home environment for the frequent and natural use of Mother Tongue languages. Lengthen exposure time beyond school hours.
  2. Be a good role-model and use the language with them.
  3. Bring them to the library, borrow books and read with them.
  4. The Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism has supported the production of books and resources suitable for young children. If parents need good recommendations, do check out the bilingualism.sg website.


23. Finally, let me say this. In recent years, global passport rankings have gained popularity across the world. According to many indices, Singapore boasts one of the world's most "powerful" passports. However, beyond the physical document, we also hold another equally vital passport and that is bilingualism.

24. The ability to speak two languages and understand two cultures enables us to maintain a strong link to our heritage and forge connections with people around the world. But there is a deeper meaning in all these. In a deeper sense, bilingualism also shapes our identity and DNA. We learn to appreciate diversity, work with diversity, and harness diversity to create something new, something more valuable. These are important traits for Singaporeans. We know how to value add to others when we synthesise varied ideas and integrate different perspectives. Bilingualism is a "passport" that we should really cherish, beyond our physical red passport.

25. Let our children flourish in the wonderland of our Mother Tongue Languages. Let me say one other thing before I announce the opening of the 12th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium. I want to thank all our teachers, educators, parents and stakeholders who have given us such valuable feedback for us to keep evolving and improving our Mother Tongue Languages and teaching materials. Without you and your ideas, we will not be where we are. But having said that, we are never complacent. We are constantly looking for even better ideas, more interesting methods to engage our students to ignite their passion, interest and plant the seeds in them for them to learn the language and use the language for life. On that note, thank you to all of you. Let me announce the official opening of the 12th Mother Tongue Languages Symposium. Have an enriching learning experience.

26. Thank you. 谢谢. Terima kasih. Nandri.