From vernacular education to bilingualism (A confused mix all in the family)

December 18, 2005 at 12:35 pm 4 comments

If your family has been resident for a long time in Singapore, ask about your parents’ and grandparents’ education. I suspect mine ain’t that atypical of the average Singaporean family. My grandparents were educated in the Chinese-medium schools of the day – namely Hwa Chong, Nanyang (Girls) and Chung Hwa. I guess economic realities of post-WWII Singapore forced them to enroll their sons and daughters in the English-medium schools, seeing how the Chinese educated were excluded from many government jobs as well as openings from the many new MNCs setting up shop locally. It’s all about the economy, stupid.

The surprising thing is that grandparents of both sides did not teach them the Chinese language. So you have a generation fluent in Mandarin and the other in English. My mum and aunts all had Malay as their second language in school; the males did take CL2 but apparently it was quickly forgotten after they graduated.

At home, we conversed mainly in dialect liberally sprinkled with English and Mandarin words/phrases. To the casual external observer, this probably makes for a very confused mix of languages. And I did grow up feeling deficient in my command of both English and Chinese, even though I spent many a weekends in kindergarten and lower primary hanging out by my grandfather’s Chinese bookshop (now torn down) in town. I would enjoy sitting next to him while he would pick out some dusty yellowish Chinese novel from the shelves and read it aloud to me. Unfortunately, the only recollections I have now of those days are of me trying to see if there are pictures/drawings in those books. I didn’t particularly enjoy looking at those ‘方格字 ‘.

My mum had slightly better luck with me with English. I felt more at home with the Enid Blytons and Alice, and how I found so familiar when I read about life in the English countryside and drinking tea. Try regaling me with some poem about a Chinese lake or waterfall. I would probably fall asleep.

Secondary school on the other hand was a different ball game altogether. There was a strong emphasis on ‘Chineseness’, and for the first time my Chinese grades languished at the bottom of the class. I still remember the first Chinese essay that I had submitted; the teacher returned it to me with the comment something along the lines of ‘this is such a lousy piece of writing that I wonder how you even managed to get admitted to this school.‘ and had mine shown as an example to the rest of the class of how not to write one.

Actually, I don’t blame the teachers. Most were Nantah alumni, and many times in class had berated us for our deteriorating standard of Chinese (frequently directing their diatribe at the ‘kantangs’) and how many of us were uninterested in state of current affairs in the country. The good bad thing I learned from them was that they made us politically aware, and provided me with real life examples from which to look at the ‘dry’ history topics like the Hock Lee Bus riots and the merger/closure of Nantah. Secondary school was also when I turned to non-fiction.

Incidentally, during PSLE my folks did consider putting RI or VS as first choice, but were eventually sold to the idea of a SAP education. Life (on the romance side) might turn out to be different.

Related: L’oiseau rebelle, Nantah and its legacy


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Wearing the Academic Garb Streaking at UC Berkeley; Melvin replies

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. serene  |  December 19, 2005 at 2:31 am

    SAP! what a coincidence…

    could you have been from the same sch as me and O2?

    I come from an English-speaking family, but my English isn’t that wonderful at all. All punctuated with la,lo,leh and all those Singlish. I used to wish that our family could speak purrrrfect English instead. not with accents, but purrrrfect English.

  • 2. Swiss Miss  |  December 19, 2005 at 5:54 am

    With our assembly areas next to each other, I can’t help but dislike the way your principal, vice-principal or whoever made announcements in Mandarin. It made me feel as if I was in a communist country. And if I do not remember wrongly, he/she was always speaking in a negative and degrading tone over the PA system for your schoolmates as well as mine to hear. I know your teachers are caring people but their way of displaying it can really affect a teenager’s self-esteem terribly. After one year in my secondary school, I was glad that your school shifted to the new premises in Tanjong Rhu. It spared me from hearing Chinese ‘announcements’ while we wear trying to sing the National Anthem.

  • 3. tscd  |  December 20, 2005 at 5:59 am

    My parents are both fluent in Malay and English. They never spoke to me in Malay or in Dialect, in the hopes that it would encourage me to learn mandarin.

    Now I am only fluent in English and I can’t communicate with my peranakan relatives.

  • 4. agrainofsand  |  December 20, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    yay, I can finally comment.

    Do you know, I have it on good authority that Mr. Kiw is really calling it quits? The new generation of parents no longer support his doctrination apparently. In a way, it’s sad, but I reckon it’s high time the school progresses into the 21st century.


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