Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ST: Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

From the Straits Times on 18 June 2008:

Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

I THANK readers who wrote in to discuss my article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (June 4). By so doing, you have provided the authorities feedback on the views, concerns and issues about the bilingual education policy. Hopefully, the Ministry of Education will take note and take appropriate measures to improve its implementation.

My message in the article is very clear: The right mindset, attitude, interest, motivation, time and effort are success factors for language learning, however difficult a language may be, including the absence of a supporting environment. These factors override linguistic difficulty.

Some readers have tried to read my mind, inaccurately for that matter. They say that in my mind, 'If I can, so can others'. The truth is it is just the opposite, that is, 'if others can, so can I'. Let us look at the statistics.

I (and others) believe that people can succeed in learning and acquiring a language if they want to. The Singapore Census of Population 2000 shows that Chinese Singaporeans (48.3 per cent English-Chinese bilinguists and 32 per cent Chinese monolinguists) have reached the high of 80.3 per cent acquisition of literacy in the Chinese language (CL). These figures speak for themselves and highlight the point that Chinese is not that difficult as perceived, at least to the vast majority.

Those who harp on CL's difficulty may unconsciously develop the negative mind-set, reluctance and resistance to learning the language. So unintentionally and unwittingly, they add on to the perceived difficulty and do themselves and their children a disservice.

Let us think positive. Look at it this way: When you love a language, it will love you and stay with you. I have read the Chinese learning experience of Joseph Needham in the book The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (HarpersCollin Publishers Inc 2008).

The late Cambridge University don was a biochemist by training. Unlike a professional sinologist 'who had gone through the mill of formal academic teaching in Chinese', Joseph Needham learnt Chinese, an unrelated language, without this benefit in his late 30s.

With great interest, enthusiasm, love, passion, effort and diligence, he attained his linguistic competence of 5,000 or 6,000 Chinese characters for full literacy in two to three years. By comparison, students in Singapore learn 3,500 Chinese characters in eight years, four years in primary school and another four in secondary school. This works out to 8.4 characters a week, including school holidays.

His experience shows that where there is a will, there is a way. So long as one wants something and is willing to work for it, one will get it. Many other non-Chinese Westerners have also got it.

Joseph Needham was the great author of the voluminous book (18 volumes) Science And Civilization In China. His mastery of Chinese gave him the key to unlock the door to the treasure of Chinese science, culture, history and civilisation. With his book, he became the great man who has made a tremendous contribution to the world's understanding of China.

As far as learning Chinese is concerned, 'he fell in love not simply with the language, but with China itself'. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, has done so with the same spirit.

In conclusion, if you think CL is a useful key, learn to get it. If not, forget it. There is no need to justify your choice.

Lee Seng Giap

This is the same Mr. Lee who claimed two weeks ago that it is not hard to learn Chinese. I don't wish to waste my breath rebutting him but it is a matter of public record he did say that Chinese was not difficult to learn.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

ST: Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?

From the Straits Times on 4 Jun 2008:

Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?
By Lee Seng Giap, For The Straits Times

SOME English-educated Chinese Singaporeans think and say that Chinese is difficult to learn. That is why their children find it hard to pick up Chinese, they say.

Is this really the case? I have found the answer is an emphatic 'No!'

Vili Maunula, a theoretical linguist, writes: 'All languages are, to the best of our current understanding of human languages, equally suitable for conversation. No language is more expressive or less expressive than the other, neither is one language easier or more difficult.'

My own language-learning experience from childhood supports this view. I grew up in a dialect-speaking home. My mother had never been to school. My father had learnt some Chinese in the Hokkien dialect in an old-style village school in China before coming to Singapore at the age of 13. In my childhood days, Mandarin and English were hardly spoken among the Chinese community.

When I first went to a Chinese school, I could speak neither Mandarin nor English. I did not even know how to write my name in Chinese or English.

But I started learning Chinese and English. I was interested and had an open mind. I worked hard. I finished the six-year Chinese primary school in five years. I graduated as the top boy of my year in 1950.

Then I decided to switch from the Chinese stream to the English stream. My oral English was not good then. I had had no chance to speak English other than reading aloud in class. So, in the English school, my classmates called me 'Chinaman' because of my poor spoken English.

I listened to BBC broadcasts, read English books, attended public lectures in English and also made it a point to ask questions and make comments. I also had pen pals with whom I corresponded in English.

I even learnt the international phonetic system, as I had done the old Chinese phonetic symbols (now replaced by the hanyu pinyin).

With an open mind and effort, my English improved by leaps and bounds. I topped the school in English. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I even scored a distinction in English in my Senior Cambridge School Certificate examination in the mid-1950s.

All this while, I never stopped learning Chinese. I continued to improve my Chinese by listening to local and Peking Mandarin broadcasts.

When I sat for the Chinese Senior Middle III Government examination as a private candidate, I scored distinctions for both Chinese and English. And when I took the Higher School Certificate (HSC, now A-level), again as a private candidate, I received distinctions for the general paper and Chinese.

I later signed up as an external student for a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in Chinese and passed with a good grade from the School of Oriental and African Studies, which required, and still does, answers for examination papers in both Chinese and English.

Based on the misconception that Chinese is a difficult language for those from an English-speaking background - and that English too is difficult for those from a dialect-speaking environment - I should not have done so well in these two languages.

A closed mind is a blocked mind. Things are shut out and you lose out. The best way to learn Chinese is to keep an open mind, do away with prejudice and be passionate about learning the language and culture.

The rise of China in recent years has created a global wave of interest in learning Chinese. In the United States and Europe, there are now Caucasians who are professional English-Chinese translators.

Even Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has picked up so much Chinese that he won applause for his fluent Mandarin when he spoke at Beijing University in April.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last year a list of 1,600 to 1,700 Chinese characters for CL (Chinese language) pupils, and 1,800 to 1,900 characters for HCL (higher Chinese language) pupils in primary school.

There are 52 weeks in a year and 312 weeks in six years. If one divided 1,700 and 1,900 respectively by 312 multiplied by seven days, CL students would have to learn 0.78 character a day, while HCL students would have to learn 0.87 character.

Of the two Chinese character lists, 600 to 700 characters in CL and 400 to 500 in HCL are for word recognition only, not for writing.

The revised list of Chinese characters for secondary school students is not available yet. Based on the MOE announcement in 2002, the list for CL students was 3,000 characters, of which 300 are for word recognition only.

For HCL students, the list contains 3,500 characters for word recognition and writing. Both lists include characters from primary school.

In effect, CL secondary students need learn only an additional 1,400 characters at most and HCL students an additional 1,700 new characters. This is quite manageable, even if school holidays are not counted.

It is a question of mindset. Have the right mindset and you will succeed.

I once saw a poster of seagulls flying over a stormy sea. The caption read: 'They can because they think they can.'

That gets to the heart of the matter.

The writer is a veteran English-Chinese simultaneous interpreter and book translator.

I get annoyed by articles like this. Not because I am against learning Chinese but because articles like this, which appeared in the Review section of the Straits Times, trivialize the difficulty of learning two extremely different languages. This is an opinion piece unbacked by data and has no place in the Review section of the national broadsheet.

It is true that many English-speaking parents complain that Chinese is difficult for their kids to learn. Just because Mr Lee managed to become proficient in it doesn't mean that it isn't. When we say some task is difficult, we mean that it is not easily and readily done and that it requires much labour, skill and planning in order for it to be performed successfully. Difficult certainly does not mean that the task is unachievable, just that it requires extra effort. If anything, Mr Lee's detailed account of his tremendous extra-curricular effort and time contradicts his claim that learning Chinese and English is not difficult.

Language acquisition is a function of one's linguistic environment. For many kids who come from an English-speaking background, learning Chinese is tough and vice versa. This, of course, doesn't mean that those kids cannot do it; it's just that it would require considerable additional effort and motivation and it is not necessarily obvious to them, or to me, why they should do so.

Take me for example. I come from a Chinese-speaking background but have never identified very much with contemporary Chinese culture. I don't listen at all to Chinese music, which seems to be mostly soapy love songs. Radiohead is more my cup of tea. I do read some Chinese newspapers and magazine but that's about it. Yazhou Zhoukan is pretty good. My attitude towards Chinese is pragmatic - it just allows me to read more stuff. Being Chinese is a matter of ethnic descent to me, something I had no choice over, and not one of self-identification.

Back to the issue at hand. Mr. Lee was obviously a very motivated learner of Chinese and English. But that's not the point. Every person can be a very motivated learner of something and if one is sufficiently motivated, one can usually learn something well enough. For instance, Mr. Lee should be sufficiently intelligent to learn at least one computer programming language but it is highly likely that he doesn't know Matlab. Why doesn't Mr. Lee know Matlab? Well, he probably think it is irrelevant.

The same goes for some people in the schooling system. Sure, Chinese is important for many things but it is not important to every single Chinese Singaporean kid. There is an attitude, held sincerely by many in Singapore, that English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans are somehow morally deficient. I am pretty sure that most Chinese teachers during my school days had the point of view: because you are an ethnic Chinese, you must learn to speak Chinese. Not being able or inclined to do so made one a racial traitor. Surprisingly, most Chinese Singaporeans ,who hold that view and never fail to remind their fellow non-Chinese speaking Chinese Singaporeans, generally lack the gonads to tell it to other Chinese people living in the Phillipines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

People usually learn a language because they need it, not out of any sense of ethnic loyalty. Many people cannot be bilingual simply because their environment simply isn't conducive for that. Blame Singapore where most official business are conducted in English, not the kids. The very fact Mr. Lee had to toil to learn both English and Mandarin suggests that being effectively bilingual is an achievement not attainable by the average Chinese Singapoean. In some sense, Mr. Lee ought to be thankful for that. Would we have the need for translators if everyone were equally facile in English and Chinese?

There is no point bringing up examples of Caucasians who speak and write Chinese and comparing them with Chinese Singaporeans who are illiterate in the language. As if being born Chinese endows you with any special genetic ability to learn the Chinese language! After all, most Chinese-literate non-Chinese people have the advantage of going through specialized language training to acquire their linguistic skills in Chinese. Kevin Rudd studied Chinese as an undergraduate and went to Taiwan to polish up his Mandarin skills. Instead of using isolated irrelevant examples of Chinese-literate non-Chinese from outside of Singapore, the proper benchmark should be non-Chinese students in the Singapore educational system studying Chinese. Do they, on average, demonstrate a better command of Chinese, after controlling for variables like intelligence and academic ability?

Of course, my detractors will say that as sons and daughters of the dragon, Chinese Singaporeans should learn to speak Chinese. This is obviously a particular point of view and there is no rational reason to submit to it. For instance, a Muslim Singaporean could tell you that it is immoral to drink alcohol but why should you accept its imposition on the rest of Singapore? It also betrays an ignorance of the history of the ethnogenesis of the Han Chinese race in China. Most South Chinese are descended, at least partially, from the non-Sinitic aboriginal natives of South China. In other words, like many Chinese Singaporeans, I probably had ancestors who didn't speak a Chinese language as their mother tongue but took up the language and passed it on to their kids. Those ancestors of mine and of many Chinese Singaporeans must have given up their original native language in the process of becoming Chinese. So, it is not a little hypocritical to demand total linguistic loyalty from Chinese Singaporeans.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

ST: English test for foreign front-line staff? Bosses say 'no'

From the ST on 25 May 2008:

English test for foreign front-line staff? Bosses say 'no'

Many not keen on imposing test, citing current labour crunch in service industry

By Jamie Ee Wen Wei and Dhany Osman

Should there be an English entry test for foreign workers in front-line service jobs?

Judging from the response of employers and human resources experts contacted by The Sunday Times, the answer seems to be no. In fact, most say that such a test may pose more problems than it solves.

The idea of an entry test was mooted amid a brewing debate in the Forum page of The Straits Times over the issue of foreign front-line staff and their English proficiency.

Letter writer Jaggi Kumar, who suggested the test, wondered why it is not in place, since a similar test was imposed on foreign maids.

Introduced by the Ministry of Manpower three years ago, the English entry test for first-time maids was designed to ensure that they have basic numeracy and literacy skills to do household tasks and adapt to life here.
A check by The Sunday Times with employers revealed that most were not keen to impose a similar test on service workers, though the idea did find a few backers.

Among them was Mr Yeo Guat Kwang, president of the Consumers Association of Singapore and co-chairman of the Customer-Centric Initiative, which helps local companies to raise their service standards.

He said: 'If we have it for maids, I don't see why we can't have it for service staff too.'

Mr Tan Yew Kiat, general manager of fashion chain bYSI, believes that a test would improve service standards and help new foreign workers understand what is expected in their work.

Is it really necessary?

But industry players not sold on the idea worry that the test may shrink the pool of workers and worsen the labour crunch faced by the booming industry.

'Singapore cannot afford to say 'no' to foreign workers. I think if we introduce this, the number coming in will be reduced by 80 per cent,' said Mr Heinz Javier Colby, general manager of Novotel Clarke Quay Hotel which has about 30 foreign front-line officers.

Ms Elim Chew, director of streetwear chain 77th Street, felt the language problem is actually 'minor'. She said: 'If we put more obstacles, then it will be harder to get workers. This will raise costs, which will be passed on to consumers.'

There is one foreign front-line worker for every three Singaporeans employed by her company.

Mr Edward Tan, human resources director of department store chain Metro Private Limited, which employs foreigners from Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Myanmar, also wondered if there is an over-emphasis on English.

'If some stores are in the suburbs, having staff who can speak Mandarin or dialects may be more appropriate,' he said.

Mr Josh Goh, corporate services manager of recruitment company The GMP Group, agreed, noting that English speakers may not necessarily deliver better service.
'Implementing such a rule will eliminate those able to give good service but not privileged enough to learn the language.'

His company has recruited more than 100 workers from China for the service industry since hiring rules were relaxed last year.

That said, employers agree that English skills are good to have. In fact, given a choice, most companies would prefer to hire English speakers, said employment agencies.

The reality, however, is that it is hard to find such people, especially when the industry is turning to non-traditional sources like China.

'Some know English, but it is still hard to understand them because of their pronunciation,' said Mr Daniel Low, director of Wilm Management, a recruitment company. It has recruited more than 200 Chinese workers for service-sector companies this year.

Those who do speak English well also expect higher salaries. Often, they also prefer to work in Western countries where the pay may be better, said employment agents.

Training efforts

Still, employers agree that more can be done to train staff to communicate better. Some employment agencies and service-sector firms have started in-house English training programmes.

On a national level, there is also help offered by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), which companies like Sakae Sushi are tapping into.

Mr Douglas Foo, chief executive officer of Apex-Pal which runs the Japanese-food chain, said all his workers have to go through the Employability Skills System under the WDA. Under this, there are courses to upgrade English proficiency.

A few weeks ago, Mr Foo said his company hired its first batch of 10 Chinese workers. They are undergoing a three-month English course.

But not all companies may have in-house or external training. Smaller enterprises, noted industry experts, are often hard-pressed to say yes to training.

'Operation costs are going up. Their margins are already very slim,' said the Singapore Retailers Association's executive director Lau Chuen Wei.

Another issue is time. Mr Justin Ng, director of human resources company AICG, said: 'Most employers require their foreign staff to work long hours. By the time they finish, they are too tired to attend any courses.'

Among his clients, only 30 per cent require their foreign staff to go for language training.

When Metro started a computer-based English training course four years ago, it became a hit with its foreign staff.

But after a few years, the department store faced another problem. Some workers, after receiving training, left for better jobs.

Others have suggested that the Government extend subsidies for training to foreign workers as well. Currently, training subsidies are limited to Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Still, in the light of the current situation, most feel that the onus is on companies to train their foreign staff to communicate effectively.

Those which do not may soon lose their competitive edge, said Ms Caroline Lim, director of the Institute of Service Excellence at the Singapore Management University. 'After some time, customers will stop going to their shops. This is when the companies will start feeling the pinch.'

The presence of non-English speaking PRC staff has increased significantly in Singapore retail shops and many people, especially the non-Mandarin speaking ones, are getting annoyed by it. What the authorities have to bear in mind is that there is silent social compact between the major ethnic groups in Singapore that, despite the Chinese majority in Singapore, we do not use Mandarin as the national inter-ethnic language very much like Malay is the decreed lingua franca in Malaysia. There is nothing wrong with learning Mandarin, or Malay for that matter, but we shouldn't expect our fellow non-Chinese Singaporeans to learn it just to buy their groceries.

While it is true that most non-English speaking PRC staff are found in the heartlands, where there are a large number of Mandarin speakers, what fails to be noticed is that, because of our national policy to disperse minorities, there are Malay and Indian Singaporeans living in the same heartlands. How do they feel? There is no avoiding of these non-English speaking foreign staff.

ST Forum: Engineers' body will work to draw top brains into industry

From the ST Forum on 2 June 2008:
Engineers' body will work to draw top brains into industry

I REFER to the article, 'His worry: Is Singapore becoming high cost, low tech?' (May 22).

In it, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, a former top civil servant, highlighted the importance of Singapore ensuring that the best and brightest students become engineers. He was quoted as saying: 'How do you become a knowledge-based economy except through science and technology? As a result, if the cream of the education goes to Shenton Way instead of technology and industrial parks, I think we are done for.'

Coming from someone with a strong economics background, this statement is especially significant.

The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES) shares Mr Ngiam's view.

In another article, 'Engineers have role in community building' last Monday, our president, Ms Lee Bee Wah, said that, in order for Singapore to take the next leap, we need a core group of very good engineers. This is because technology will play an important part in the next phase of our development.

She also expressed her hope that top students will make engineering their top choice at university.

Engineers have made significant contributions to nation building and improving the quality of life in Singapore. Almost every aspect of our daily activities, be it at work or at play, involves the work of engineers.

As Singapore moves towards a more knowledge-based economy, engineers will be called on to perform ever more complex and cross-disciplinary tasks. It is for this reason that schools and other institutions need to strive continually to ensure that our bright and talented youth do not turn away from taking up engineering as a lifelong career.

IES will continue to work with government agencies, engineering industry stakeholders and educational institutions to explore ways to attract top students into engineering.

Chong Kee Sen
Honorary Secretary
Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES)

The reason why top students don't want to go into engineering is actually pretty simple - engineers in Singapore are paid less relative to people in finance, law or accountancy. Engineering is one of those things in Singapore that get outsourced very easily. Furthermore, it is extremely easy to import engineers from India and China. Therefore, job security is minimal in Singapore.

Singapore students are not stupid. After years of conditioning, the Singaporean has become the archetypal rational Homo Economicus. To compete more effectively in the job market, they have to use their comparative advantage (relative to competitors from China and India), which would be soft skills like their command of the English language and familiarity with the local culture. Fields like Law and Business remain local bastions where Singapore students can call their own. Witness the collapse of the computing as a discipline in our local universities. A much sought-after degree in the heydey of the internet boom, it is now avoided by local university applicants mindful of the fates of their predecessors languishing in a job market saturated with Indian IT workers. As for engineering, even the best local graduates from local universities are headhunted by banks in their recruitment drive and they gladly let their heads be taken.

So what if Singaporean 14 year-olds have the best math and science scores in the world? There are always foreigners with better math and science skills than you who are willing to work for less. However, there aren't that many foreigners with English skills better than the average student. Yet. And those with enough English skills wouldn't even bother to use Singapore as a stepping stone.

For now, there is no stopping the gravitation of local students towards the non-sciences and the non-engineerings.