by Kwan Jin Yao
The Singlish term Chinese helicopter has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. No one would argue that it is not derogatory, like the term “banana” (香蕉人).
The fruit – white flesh covered by yellow skin – is used to characterise someone with Chinese features, but who is more familiar with the languages and cultures of the West (皮黄肉白).
My first encounter with the term was as a secondary one student in 2004, in the then Chinese High School, a Special Assistance Plan School which has now become part of Hwa Chong Institution. While Chinese language instruction in the classroom was rigorous, allowing bananas like myself to build firm linguistic foundations, inactive usage of the language since my graduation in 2007 means my proficiency has plunged. This was the same school which Professor Aw Guat Poh, who penned a widely circulated article on being a Chinese helicopter attended. You can read the translation here.
Her perspectives resonated with many Chinese helicopters of her generation, including a Facebook user who told of how an English teacher headed to the washroom in the middle of an English examination after proclaiming that it was all right for students to cheat, since “the class was of the same standard”.
But while English was the language of concern for Prof Aw, Chinese is the problem for Chinese Singaporeans today. Her experience of learning English was hellish and some Chinese Singaporeans might say the same too for the Chinese lessons they had to endure. While Singapore might be lauded for its bilingualism policy, there are longstanding fears that both proficiency and usage levels of Chinese are headed South.
The proportion of Singaporeans who spoke Mandarin most frequently at home may have inched up from 35 per cent in 2000 to 35.6 per cent in 2010, though anecdotally, both parents and teachers have acknowledged that student interest is hard to sustain, and that many shun the language.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) may point to statistics on rising enrolment numbers in Higher Chinese, even if little is known about the outcomes. Or, are outcomes – beyond grades – actually measured? What is clearer, however, is that Chinese Singaporeans are split. In April 2010 when then Education Minister Ng Eng Hen mooted the possibility of reducing the weight of mother-tongue language examinations in the Primary School Leaving Examination, the ensuing debate revealed deep disagreements over the standards and abilities of students taking language lessons.
So what is the state of Chinese language education here, and what should be changed to ensure its continued use?
Institutionally, teachers and their pedagogies – as Prof Aw alluded to in her reflection – matter. Her best English teachers were patient and encouraging and who never mocked their students for their lack of linguistic mastery. Through small-group discussions and active references to current affairs, these teachers allayed fears and built the confidence of their students.
Decades later in Hwa Chong Institution, my Chinese teachers were strict, sometimes intimidating, yet lessons were productive. Fumbling through my oral summary of a newspaper article as a secondary one student, in a speech marked by awkward stutters of “ahs” and “ums”, I was then tasked to do a daily summary for the rest of the term, “until I got it right”. It was tough, maybe embarrassing in the beginning, though the pressure meant I paid more attention to the periodicals during the morning reading period – Zaobao on Tuesdays, Yazhou Zhoukan on Thursdays – and even more attention to my rehearsals.
Functional aspects of the language, to write formal letters or newspaper articles, were increasingly the focus as we advanced from one secondary level to the next, and at the same time some elements of pop culture were introduced as we strengthened skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing (听说读写). Alongside classical texts and Tang poetry, we analysed the lyrics of Mandopop singer Jay Chou.
But with more households speaking English, rather than Chinese or dialects in the past, what will motivate a person to embrace Chinese and use it all his or her life?
In my opinion, with more inter-ethnic unions and the increasingly fluid concepts of heritage, culture, and identity, framing the Chinese language as a “mother tongue” and hence appealing to the “roots” of Singaporean Chinese may not necessarily be as productive.
In this vein, on a personal level, could and should motivations to master a language be anchored by pragmatism?
Pragmatism was why someone like me – who grew up in a Chinese-speaking household – turned out to be a banana. Because my Chinese-educated parents were disadvantaged at their workplaces, prompting them to also take English night classes years after graduation, my childhood years were marked by trips to enrichment centres Lorna Whiston and Morris Allen, and weekly visits to the public library in Ang Mo Kio.
Privileged as I was, household conversations became a mix of English and Chinese, and English became the language of choice outside of it.
As rigorous as the 10 years of Chinese education were in primary and secondary school, my usage of the language – limited to causal conversations, interactions with Chinese clients during internships, or occasional scans of Zaobao – has dipped since I sat for the GCE O-Level Higher Chinese examination in 2007.
Realising that language competencies can only be sustained through active usage, at various points in the past nine years I made half-hearted commitments to use Chinese more frequently. Yet in the words of Professor Aw, “it is easier said than done”. Unless a job or business opportunity opens up in the near future, the pile of rummaged newspaper clippings and Chinese word banks from my secondary school days will remain in the corner of my bookshelf.
Think now about children in English-speaking households, with no background nor motivation to learn Chinese. Their first encounter of the language could be in pre-school or nursery and would probably involving the “drilling” and “explicit instruction” that Prof Aw was exposed to in her English lessons. Competent enough to clear examinations but not enough to instil confidence.
In addition to straightforward policy proposals to improve access to and the quality of pre-school education – since it has been scientifically postulated that children between the ages of zero and five pick up speech and language lessons more expediently – the issue of motivation must also be addressed by the MOE.
Prof Aw and I are a generation apart. Circumstances may have differed, but the experiences of the Chinese helicopters and bananas – brought together – could enrich the discourse surrounding the teaching and learning of languages today. If progress for the future is desired, then the lessons of the past cannot be forgotten.
Featured image by Natassya Diana.
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