Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chinese lessons at home

I have been teaching Ryan to read Chinese.

Yes, believe me, I know how ludicrous that sounds.

In a nation where primary school students spout Chinese idioms and, not only write compositions, but write creative compositions, my Chinese is considered to be... how shall I put it... well, "hopeless" would be a fair description.

Growing up, my family did not speak Chinese (Mandarin) at home, although we spoke a bunch of other languages/dialects. My father, who was fluent in Mandarin, recognised the importance of it and so he engaged a tutor to come to our house a few times a week to teach me to read and write in Chinese. My father was a smart man - he roped in my best friend who lived two doors down to take the class with me so that I would be more interested. In truth, I was very interested to learn something new, so I didn't need any persuasion.

I have good memories of those sessions, sitting around my huge round dining table in the afternoons, we two girls laughing at some secret joke, while our tutor diligently read our books out loud into a tape recorder for us to play back in our spare time. I remember showing my homework to my father in the evening, he in his armchair and me with my brown exercise book on the floor. I was supposed to construct sentences using words we learned and, of course, this was extremely difficult for the first few lessons because I didn't know enough words to make up a sentence. Daddy to the rescue of course! He literally did all my homework for me for the first few sessions. I told him, in English, the sentence I wanted and he would write it in Chinese for me! If I paused too long, he would come up with his own sentence and start writing away diligently.

Sometime in primary three, Chinese was introduced in my school under the "POL" (Pupil's Own Language) programme. There were no exams, it was very basic and it felt almost as if the school just needed to fill up the time with something. I breezed through the Chinese lessons with no problems, thanks to my tutoring. The POL programme didn't last very long and was soon replaced with sewing classes.

When I was ten, the tutoring stopped and from then, I had no reason to read or write Chinese until I won a scholarship and came to Singapore, the land of Chinese idiom-spouting ten year-olds. Our group of scholarship holders comprised a motley crew - some had been Chinese-educated, while others had been educated in national schools (like I was). It was highly entertaining to the former whenever the latter attempted to speak in Chinese. A mate of mine tried to order "One bowl of noodles, please" and the hawker laughed and said "I'll give you two kisses, no problem!" (she had confused the Chinese word for "bowl" with the word for "kiss").

Different accents notwithstanding, I found myself in the peculiar position of being able to understand what was being said to me in Chinese but reluctant to express myself in Chinese. I could hear the words in my head, sometimes I could even read them, but they just wouldn't come out of my mouth the way I intended. It's like a right-handed person trying to write with his left foot. You know what you want to write, you know how it should be written, but you just can't control your left foot well enough to do it. When I did try, it sounded terrible, like I was murdering it. There were long pauses between each word, as if I was dense in the head. Even with some sign language thrown in, and lots of "na ke, na ke" ("that one", "that one"), I took five times as long to say something that my Chinese-educated mates could say in a heartbeat. Not cool.

After I had lived in Singapore for a while, I realised, to my relief, that I could get by perfectly fine in Singapore without knowing a word of Chinese. Everything I needed to know was in English. Everyone I dealt with spoke English (and those who didn't, usually the old folks, understood Cantonese, which I could do). In my line of work, English is the only language that is used. In fact, if I come across a Chinese document, I am obliged to send it to a translator for an "official" translation into English.

In fact, none of us scholars who came to Singapore from Malaysia devoted any attention to improving our Chinese. Those who were Chinese-educated were already streaks ahead of their Singaporean counterparts. Those who were from national schools took Malay in school to satisfy the requirement of a second language for their A-levels and just carried on with English in daily life. That mate of mine who ordered the kisses? Her Chinese never progressed beyond that and it made no difference - she's now employed by IBM in Singapore.

It is no wonder therefore that, in recent years, the standard of Chinese in Singapore is said to have suffered a drop. My own has diminished from "passable" to "laughable".

The drop in standard has been attributed to the way the language was taught in schools, rote learning and drilling, which they say works only for the short term and for passing Chinese language exams in school. They say that, if it is not taught in an enjoyable way, children will resist learning it. They say that, if it is not used often, it's not going to stick. I agree with that.

Mind you, the "drop" in standard does not make a difference to me. I've seen the Chinese workbooks for pre-school (yes, let me say that again, the workbooks for pre-school!!!) and the textbooks for Chinese language at Primary 1. Very scary. Without external help, there is no way that a child like Ryan, coming from an English-speaking family, will be able to survive the subject in school.

So begins our journey into the Chinese language. I figured that, since he can learn his ABCs and his 123s, he can learn some Chinese characters too. At their very basic, ABCs, 123s and Chinese characters are all abstract representations of sounds that carry meaning.

So far, Ryan can recognise and read about 30-40 characters. The pronunciation is not spot-on - if you thought that my pronunciation is too Western, wait till you hear Ryan's - but I'm not concerned about that at this stage. I think he's doing well and hopefully we can continue to make good progress!



LOL.. I'm hearin ya! Well-written post :)

Pinkie Pirate said...

BikBik and RoRo - thanks for stopping by! love the softie pins, by the way!

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