Monday, January 18, 2010

Why so difficult to learn Mandarin (II)?

Happened to tune into blogTv on Channel News Asia entitled "Hooked on Huayu" shown on 8 Jan 2010. Having watched the programme, it set me thinking and thus my blog.

As usual, the discussions were rushed through due to time constraint. This, to me, is the greatest set back for this otherwise interesting program. The points brought up are summarised below:

1. the same Chinese character may have different pronunciations
2. pupils were criticised and "made to feel small" when they don't do well
3. as Singaporeans lack a cultural background, there is no passion in picking up the language
4. MOE should hold immersion programs for the student so that they will become interested in the language after realising its usefulness
5. make the teaching of language fun, so children will want to learn more

All the points brought up were relevant and probably true. My discussion today will take a different approach. In contrast to my previous blog where I try to explain for the difficulty in learning Mandarin, in this blog, I will approach it from the learning of English instead.

In the English language, we were taught to use phonetics to aid in our pronunciations. This is where a word is broken up into syllable to aid in the pronunciation. For example re-le-vant. Simple! But like all things there are exeptions.

Sometimes the same syllable is pronounced differently. Our is pronounced as owl-wer but four is pronounced as for and not fe-owl-wer despite the second syllable being exactly the same as our. And then we have hour which is pronounced exactly like our despite having a different spelling!

As if that is not complicated enough, pronunciations sometimes also depends on how the word is being used. Take the word produce. It can be pronounced in two ways depending on whether it is used as a noun or a verb. Hence it can be pronounced as pro-dus or pro-dyus.

Hence, the pronunciation of English words is not as easy as it seems. No doubt, English words are made up of alphabets which gives a hint on how to pronounce but sometimes one can be caught up.

I remember a time when I have to memorise spellings after spellings every week. On top of that I was made to learn the mysterious ways of the English grammar. Although, grammar is being left out in formal teaching of English, spellings is still the norm. Then, there are comprehensions, cloze passages, oral, etc. If all these make the learning of English fun, then there must be no sadist in this world!

Mandarin language teachers were made the scapegoat when it was said that their style of teaching is a contributing cause to the disinterest shown by the students. Sigh, poor teachers whose only 'crime' is to try their best to teach the language. It is true that some of the teachers are over-zealous, but I know for a fact that such 'tactics' are not only confine to Mandarin language teachers. I am sure there are an equal number (if not more) of Science teachers and Maths teachers, and not to 'alienate' the English teachers, who have done the same thing to their students. And what 'crime' am I talking about? Of course the scolding and the 'criticisms' that are leveled at our poor kids, who had tried their best and still have no clue as to what the fuss is all about when they had gotten that B instead of A or Band 2 instead of Band 1. Unfortunately, the criticism does not stop in school, but is continued back home. And yet, the child still continues to learn English, Science and Maths.

Immersion program was quoted as being useful as it rekindled the interest of one of the panelist in the learning of Mandarin. Another participant even said that MOE should let all students to have immersion program where they can study for a week in China's school. I am surprise that in the study of English, our children need not go to England for immersion programs and yet they can sit through hours of English classes and tuition at home. Furthermore, a one week program will just turn out to be just another tour. There are many opportunities to learn Mandarin here at home, if only one is interested. For a minimal fee, one can learn Mandarin through the many Mandarin dramas and game shows on offer by TCS8 and Channel U. If that is not enough, there are always the numerous radio stations out there. And this type of immersions and 'encouragement' can be carried out throughout the year, nearly free of charge!

Given the above scenarios, it seems that whatever difficulty faced by the child in learning Mandarin, is not much different from that encountered in the learning of English. The obstacles are the same, but the outcome is different. Why is this so?

It was said that Singaporeans lack a cultural identity and hence it is difficult to learn the language. This remark seemed rather strange to me as given the so called lack of culture why does one choose English and not Mandarin (in the case of Chinese) as the 'mother' tongue? Wouldn't Mandarin be more natural choice because even if one lacks the culture, there is the name and the skin colour to remind one of ones culture? What is there about us, Asians, that make us more culturally nearer to the Caucasians? So this argument does not hold.

I have no answer to this problem. However my perception of the problem can be summarised by the following questions.

Why is it that people will speak in broken English and yet will not do the same in Mandarin?
Why is it that a child's first book will be in English and not in Mandarin?

Maybe my previous blog will provide the answer.....
Wormie Says blogs

Thursday, October 15, 2009

PSLE 2009

The 2009 Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) has just concluded. And as with previous years there was much dissatisfaction about the examination papers - this year in Maths and Mandarin papers. There were complaints about the difficult maths paper even by top students. Now there was foul cry on the possible 'unfair advantage' by some students after one of the Chinese passage was similar to that of a passage found in one of the assessment books.

Of course in both instances, the reply from the Ministry of Education was as expected. For the Maths paper, the Education Ministry said that the paper was "comparable" to those of previous years with no change in syllabus, question types or number of questions.

As for the Mandarin paper, the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board said that although the setter had drawn reference from an external source, the passage is not a reproduction and that the content and language in the passage had been substantially modified to be aligned to the assessment objective. The board also assured parents that pupils who had seen the other passage would not have been unfairly advantaged over those who did not.

But are the complaints justified?

First, the Maths paper. From the example quoted, the question was indeed difficult, even for myself. It is not difficult to see why parents and students cry foul over such a question. However on further evaluation, this question was not as difficult as it seems. It was just tedious to do because it involves an extra one or two steps to what was normally encountered by students. Since the principle behind the question was the same as what had been encountered by students, there should be no question of the question being too difficult; it is just plain tedious.

So if the basic principle was the same, why then are top students having difficulty answering them? My guess is the way they study. A lot of top students are very hard working. I am sure most of them had already completed at least 80% of all available assessment books in the market if not more. By doing more is good, but may not be very effective. This is because after doing the hundredth question, it practically becomes rote learning. The understanding part is lost. Hence when questions are rephrased, students are taken aback because it is different from the 'norm'; and they lost their confidence. But if they had been learning intelligently, their first reaction would not be one of awe but 'this is another ratio problem' - a very neutral feeling, which is less likely to shatter their confidence.

Such difficult questions should not even be viewed with fear. Students should be trained to looked at such questions as a chance to beat the next guy. Given that our students scores distinction as easily as drinking water, what is there to differentiate the ultra-smart from the very-smart? Hence, instead of trepidation, students should be taught to appreciate such question as a chance to be branded as the ultra-smart. Furthermore, if they are truely the top student, then they should be reassured that if they cannot do it, then nobody else can!

Then the Chinese paper. The similarity between the passage found in the test paper and the assessment book is indeed unfortunate. However, unless the passage and the questions were exactly the same, should the question of unfair advantage even arise?

Comprehension passage is about understanding and as long as the questions are different, then the advantage would be minimum if any. Furthermore, even in the event that there is a perception of unfair advantage, it does not mean that the student can answer the question gained from previous exercise. This is because language is about usage and correct grammatical answers come with practice. Hence it follows that it there is enough practice, there should be no problem answering them in the first place. Whatever perceived advantage will be nullified!

On top of that, if the passage and the questions were truely reproduced from the assessment book, the 'unfair' advantage, in my view is a fair one; as the student must have been working very hard by going through many assessments books. If he had worked so hard, wouldn't this 'unfortunate' incident be fair to him? Hence, in my opinion, the correct way is not to criticise the examination paper but to take the opportunity to teach the student the value of working hard. After all, when can there be a more tangible example than this one?

Whatever the controversies, this incident will recur, as had been happening many times before. So instead of crying foul, in my opinion, this is a good opportunity to teach the student about the many obstacles and setbacks they will encounter in their lifetime. If such a small obstacle and setback can draw such a big reaction, think what will happen when bigger setbacks and obstacles are encountered as they journey through their life. After all, education is not about scoring that distinction; but is about gearing up and be prepared for any eventual obstacles, both planned and unplanned, as one goes through life.

Wormie Says blogs

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It is not about eating in MRT trains but ....

The SMRT will be issuing fines for people caught eating in the MRT trains. This followed the rise in the number caught eating in the train where it is prohibited and comes with a fine of S$500. Eating in the train is a minor issue, but the problem is a larger one.

If one looks around today, it is hardly surprising to see people breaking the rules. It is not difficult to see people blatantly throwing rubbish, jaw-walking, indiscreminate parking, and the latest "fad", that of eating in the trains. All may be minor offences. All should not have made it to national news. But the implications are important.

Firstly, why do people nowadays seemed to break rules? It is a quirkiness of the times? I remember many years ago when people would think twice before throwing that piece of rubbish; or trying looking for that pedestrian crossing before attempting to jay-walk. What has changed since? Now it seemed that breaking the rules is something to be proud of, no longer needed to be carried out away from prying eyes.

Secondly, minor offence they may be but underlying all this is the issue of discipline. If one can easily breaks such simple rules, what about more serious offences? The temptation to eat in the train is small, the rewards are small. If a person has no discipline to control himself over such small temptation and rewards, does he stand a chance to deal with bigger temptations? As the saying goes, "Everyone has a price". If such small rewards can make one break the law, then there is nothing to stop him from committing more serious offences, is there?

Thirdly, the next generation. If such minor offence is tolerated and accepted by the current generation, wouldn't the next generation be worse? Once upon a time, holding hands between teenagers was a taboo. Then it became accepted, and so teenagers goes a step further - hugging in public. This was eventually 'tolerated', and so there was kissing in public. All this changes takes place in within two generations. Previously, the kissing couple felt embarassed when caught, now the onlookers are the ones feeling embarrassed! Similarly, now innocuous rules are blatantly broken, what is there to stop further slides?

Fourthly, if everyone were to break the law, how will it affect the society? Already our society is so cosmopolitan with so many differentiation - heartlanders, foreign talents, white collar, etc - hard as it is to keep calm and harmony. However if everyone choose to break the rules, even those of the minimum commonly accepted social grace, wouldn't everyone's life be affected? Everyone will suffer, not just those who choose to infringe the law.

I think it is good that SMRT is doing something to stem such menace. However I do not think that issuing fine will solve the problem. It is always easy to say that education is important but alas despite the rise in our educational level, more and more such problems had surfaced.

The answer lies with the person himself - having the courage to choose to do right, having the courage to choose not to hurt the next person beside him and having the courage to say that he does not need any rules because whatever he do, he do it for himself.

How can we cultivate such a person, is, unfortunately the question.

The Strait Times, 15 Aug 2007:
Why don't S'poreans take 'no eating' sign seriously? [Archives]
The Strait Times, 6 Jul 2009:
Drink-and-eat MRT offenders on the rise [Archives]

Wormie Says blogs

Monday, February 23, 2009

The End of Marriage Institutions?

It was with much amusement and sadness when I read an article about the rise of prenuptial agreements in the Sunday Times Feb 22, 2009. While the prenuptial agreement made a good fun read on a Sunday lazy morning, the context and implications of the agreement is worrisome.

Unlike the original reason of prenuptials, where the main purpose is to 'safe guard' ones fortune in case of divorce, the prenups reported by the newspaper is not about fortune or who to gets the children in case of marriage breakdowns. It was on things like cooking only once a week, cutting down on smokings, etc; things which I thought were things you would do out of understanding and love. In the printed newspaper, it was mentioned that the couple only got married after both agreed to the prenuptial agreement.

All this sounded so much like our business world - where meetings are held until some form of compromises can be reached with a contract drawn up and signed. Everything is strictly business; any emotions is discounted. However isn't this goes against the very idea of marriage?

Marriage, traditionally, is based on love between two people who chose to live and share their lives together; and love is based on emotions. One cannot draw up a contract to show ones love for one another. Love also means doing things that will make the partner happy like cutting down on alcohol if this meant making the partner happy. So if such things have to be spelt out in a contract, isn't there love lost?

The demise of the marriage institution started in the swinging sixties, with the start of the sex revolution where free sex was advocated. As society no longer frowned upon premarital sex and casual sex, marriage for sexual activity becomes unnecessary. Any couple is free to live as husband and wife without having to get married first. In the seventies, this was followed by the feminine movement where women are accepted into the workforce. Given the new financial freedom and new working role, the role of childbirth was relegated. Women for the first time have a real say as to when or whether they want to get pregnant. With the widespread availability of contraceptions, suddenly procreation became out of fashion. So, if having children becomes obsolete, why then get married at all?

Well it seems that the reasons for marriage is being repealed one at a time. I just wonder how long the marriage institution can withstand further assaults.

Just thinking aloud, what happens if the reported prenups was broken - sue the partner or divorce - like in the business world?

Wormie Says blogs

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Has financial considerations got the better of moral considerations (II)?

The Straits Times today published a report entitled ' JB Nursing homes draw some S'poreans' as a follow up on the suggestion made by the Health Minister. (See my entry here).

I am not sure if the article is supportive of the Minister's suggestion but there is one interesting point that was repeated by those interviewed. The main reason why these Singaporeans are staying in JB nursing home is that of cost - the all important affordability issue. I think this is hardly surprising and if cost is removed from the considerations, I am sure most of these old folks will be brought back home. This was echoed by a Mr Yong, whose mother is in one the nursing homes in JB when he said "I'm just unable to afford the rates here. But I do wish I was able to bring my mother back."

I do not usually like to quote from the Opposition because sometimes they just have to present their views for the sake of opposing. But in this issue I cannot but agree with both MPs from the Workers Party when they said that the Minister's suggested is "quite a bad indication of affordability of our own health care services here, and also a reflection of our national values" and "Singaporeans who cannot afford medical treatment or step-down care here should now consider such facilities in Johor?"

And it seems that this observation was not missed by Straits Times's Senior political correspondent Clarissa Oon in here writing entitled "Don't let the sun go down on S'pore's elderly" published in the Feb 12 copy of Straits Times. She wondered whether the elderly is valued as much as the young in Singapore. She based her observation on the slew of initiatives rolled out by various Ministries for the young; whereas the elderly's 'help' always comes with string attached. An example is the Maintainance of Parents Act which the MCYS Minister planned to enhanced to coerced their children to pay maintainance for their aged parents; only catch is that a growing number of children can no longer afford to do so for various reasons.

I hope the Health Minister will reconsider his suggestion and put more effort into looking for other ways of helping the elderly. Money is important in society but the family unit is definitely not less important. After all, graciousness in a society is not measured by dollars and cents. I am sure when the Minister of State Yu-Foo Yee Shoon said "the quality of life for these senior citizens should be measured not just by handouts but also by the amount of love and care they receive...." in a reply to request for more handouts, she unconsciously has highlight the most important aspect of a gracious society - the love and care to one another. And I sincerely hope that both the MCYS and the Health Ministers had heard and understood its meaning.

Wormie Says blogs

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Has financial considerations got the better of moral considerations?

The Today newspaper reported that during the Health Ministry Budget debate yesterday, the Health Minister suggested that Singaporeans could consider living in nursing homes in neighbouring Johor Baru. I find this both uncomfortable and surprise because of the Confucianist philosophy that had always been espoused by the government. Has the need of the government to always maintain a budget surplus, finally dent the moral consciousness of our Health Minister?

Already the society is lamenting about the lack of filial piety. This can be easily seen if one steps into the hospital. Here, one can easily come across those unfortunate elderly patients who had been conveniently left in hospital because no relatives or children step forward to bring them home on discharge. I had also personally come across elderly who sold their flats with the promise by the children that the proceed from the sale will be used to upgrade to a landed property; only to find out later that they were excluded in the upgrading plan. So has the Minister conveniently forgotten this aspect when he made the suggestion?

I am surprise that he was not the least concerned when one investor in this scheme told him that many people visited their relatives weekly, even in nursing home in Singapore. On the surface this is understandable given that most Singaporeans are very busy by nature; hence there is no time to visit the old folks. However dwelving deeper, isn't this just an excuse? How many times have you heard of parents resigning from their work to take care of their sick children with long term problem? Or how often have you heard of couples going back to their parents home to take dinner when their parents are able? Obviously, lack of time is just an excuse. I think the main reason is motivation, or the lack of.

Hence if within Singapore, these old folks in the nursing home are only visited once a week because of 'time constraint', what is there to 'encourage' the younger generations to visit them in JB even once a week? Wouldn't the time constraint even be greater? The jam at both Checkpoints to cross the border is already a deterrent in itself! In the end wouldn't this be a case of 'out of site, out of mind'?

The Minister also mentioned that if there are any medical problems faced, these old folks can be easily transported back to Singapore for treatment. But has the Minister forget to factor in the cost of the ambulance transport? Just a simple transfer of a patient from JB to Singapore without the presence of a doctor cost at least S$1000. Knowing that old folks can easily fall sick, would this cost more in the long run?

If one has spoken to the old folks, how many of these old folks choose to stay in a nursing home given a choice? Have the Minister even consider their feelings? Or maybe in the name of expenditure, their mental health can disregarded?

Instead of nursing home, the solution may lie with day care centres. These centres look after old folks during the day time while the children are at work and then fetched or ferried home by evening when the children are at home. This arrangement is possibly the best because it serves two purposes.

One, the old folks do not feel neglected or unwanted. They know that at the end of the day, they will go back home to their children. They even benefit from the company of other old folks. They will have somebody to talk to, someone from the same generations, who are generally more patient with more time. This will maintain their intellect and their general mental health.

Secondly, the children can feel at ease knowing that their elderly parents are being looked after while they work. They can also benefit from their parents presence which can only enriched the family unit.

Considering that the government is trying to cultivate a more gracious society, I find this suggestion by the Health Minister very odd. How can shipping the elderly to a neighbouring country promote a gracious society? Would this suggestion turn this government campaign upside down? Already with the passing of the Maintainance of Parents Act in 1995, the government had already legally defined the minimal duty children have towards their parents. In the eyes of the law, a child would have carried out his duty simply by providing financial support to their parents. Hopefully, the government will not 'sanction' another policy that will destroy the family unit further. After all like the saying goes - charity begins at home.

I strongly urge the Health Minister to seriously look into funding for the setting up of Day Care Centres and subsidies to help those financially-challenged to place their elderly in such Centres. This can only benefit the two government policies of strengthing the family unit and building a more gracious society.

Wormie Says blogs

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Barack Obama represents

Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th US President tomorrow. This will mark a historic event not only in the United States but also the world. He will be the first African-American President of the United States and will probably be the first democratically-elected leader from a minority group. Why is his Presidency such an important event to the rest of the world?

Obama was born to a mixed-marriage family. His father was Kenyan and his mother an American white. Unlike past presidents, his family background is a humble one, one that is not much different from that of the majority Ordinary folks - no silver spoon, no ivory tower, no hereditary titles. Yet, through education and hard work, he had worked himself progressively up the social ladder till, what would probably be the zenith, the Presidency itself. And all this despite having to reconcile with the fact that he was Black, a minority, with perceived glass ceilings and prejudices. This is made even more remarkable given that the Civil Rights Movement was still very much alive barely forty years ago and the Voting Acts Right was only enacted in 1965 to allow the Blacks equal rights in the democratic process.

He had ran his Presidential campaign on a platform of 'Change' and succeeded. And this he did as an American, without the distinction of skin colour as other minority candidates usually ran their own election campaigns. What is remarkable is that his main rival was Hillary Clinton, who is still wildly popular with the White voters. Despite the odds, Obama won the Democratic nominations. Of course, Sen Hillary Clinton should also be praised for her gracious acceptance of 'defeat', something the rest of the world can learn.

While 'Change' is the theme of Obama's campaign, I think his main legacy will be 'Hope'. He has given hope to the minority population around the world, that being a minority should not be seen as a disadvantage. He did has his dark moments when he had difficulty reconciling his mixed-blood lineage but he had overcome them and be stronger.

Because he had come from an middle-class family, he had no special privileged as most past Presidents had. So, he had to work hard to climb the social ladder. And all this is made possible through education. He had shown that education can flatten the social landscape, making it possible even for the under-privilege to fight on even ground.

However, the most important that Obama portrayed is daring to dream and never give up. He had shown that if one dares to dream with a never say die attitude, great things can be achieved. He failed in his bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2000, yet he did not give up. He tried again in 2004 and succeeded. Any lesser person would have given up; the odds were stacked too high. Yet he persevered. How many in the minority group dare to dream of becoming the President of the United States? He did and he succeeded.

Why is Obama's success important in our part of the world? Hope is the answer. He has shown that being a minority is no obstacle. He has shown that with education, climbing the social ladder becomes easier. He has shown that one must dare to dream and never give up. The hurdles are there, but it is not impossible to overcome them.

So to Barack Obama, I say thank you.

Wormie Says blogs