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Singapore’s Mandarin education program

October 6, 2012

By Elizabeth Weise

When talking about Mandarin education, Singapore makes for an interesting study. While the nation’s schools are all taught in English, about three-quarters of all students must become fluent in Mandarin in order to graduate.

I recently spoke with Dr. Chin CheeKuen, who is executive director of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language at Nanyang Technological University. He explained to me how their school system is structured and how students learn Mandarin there.

“Singapore is quite different from the rest of the world because we make the learning of Mandarin compulsory” for all students with Chinese heritage, says Dr. Chin. The goal is to create “bilingual citizens of the world.” In the past only the most capable people, who were able to master two languages, truly became bilingual. Now it’s simple “part of life” and necessary for the 21st century. Singapore has built its educational system around insuring that its students are ready for that future, he says

Singapore is an island national situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, about 3.5 times as big as Washington D.C. It became an independent country in 1965. The population is 5.26 million, 74.1% of Chinese descent, 13.4% of Malay decent and 9.2% of Indian descent. Eurasians and other groups make up 3.3%. One of the Asian Tigers, today it has the third highest per capita income in the world.

Singapore’s educational system is considered one of the world’s best. Its students consistently score at the very top of international measures of science and math ability.

It was founded as an English trading colony in 1819, which is why English is one of its official languages and why all schools are taught in English. The nation has four official languages, based on the main language communities of the island: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.  All children are enrolled in a ‘mother tongue’ strand within the school system depending on their ethnicity. This language remains one of their core subjects as they move through school. About 72%-75% of students are in the Chinese strand, 12%-15% in the Malay strand and 10% in the Tamil or other minorities’ language strand.

But just because students come from ethnically Chinese families does not mean that they speak Mandarin. Among Chinese families, 37% speak only or mainly Mandarin at home, 25% speak both Mandarin and English at home and 38% speak only or mainly English.  The use of Mandarin as a home language is declining in Singapore as English slowly supplants it, Dr. Chin said.

The Singapore school year runs for 40 weeks and the school day goes from 7:30 to 1:30. Most students do extra-curricular activities or special projects at school after the academic day ends, or attend remedial lessons where they do more studying. Singapore schools embrace tracking. Students are tested and assigned to a top, mainstream or vocational track according to their academic ability.

All subjects but the mother tongue are taught in English, so up to 90% of the day is in English and the rest is language arts for in Chinese, Malay or Tamil depending on the student’s background. In Chinese, students get more Mandarin time in elementary school and then the level drops slights as other subjects are emphasized. The Chinese language times for students in the mainstream program for elementary school from first through sixth grade varies between at 6.5 and 4 hours a week of Mandarin depending on their grade.

In secondary school, the U.S. equivalent of middle and high school, students in the mainstream program study Chinese 3.75 hours a week.  There is also a track for students who have done very well in Chinese or who are very interested in pursuing Chinese studies. These students get extra Chinese time for a total of 4.25 hours per week.

Singapore has its own national examinations which are taken at the end of grade 6, grade 10 or 11 and grade 12 or 13. Chinese language is one of the compulsory subjects for all Chinese students in these examinations. Students in the Chinese track in middle school need to pass a Mandarin test in the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘O’ (Ordinary) Level examination in order to enroll in high school. They must also pass a Chinese test to get their ‘A’ (Advanced) level certificate to attend local universities.

How good their Chinese is depends on their interest and how hard they work. It’s impossible to directly compare their Mandarin ability with either Chinese and Taiwanese students on the one hand and American immersion students on the other, says Dr. Chin.  But students who truly apply themselves are able to enter Beijing University in China. “We have some students who their Mandarin standard is really comparable to mainland China. We have some families who do not speak Chinese at home and I think they are learning the language from the ground up” so the level they reach is not at high in general, Dr. Chin says. And some speak it very well. As in all schools “there’s a big difference here between individuals”

However all students must pass the Chinese language at (GCE) A Level examination to be able to enter university in Singapore. This makes students and parents “take learning of Mandarin in school seriously,” says Dr. Chin.



Singapore has been a leader of the read-first-write-later strategy of Chinese education. Students are expected to read and recognize more characters than they are able to write. This allows them to read most complicated material more quickly. A distinction is made between the number of characters students must be able to read and recognize and characters students must ‘master,’ i.e. be able to read and write.

By the end of second grade, students will have learned between 600 and 650 characters, 300 to 350 of which they must be able to write. By the end of fourth grade they must know between 1,200 to 1,300 characters, including 700 to 750 they must master. By end of grade 6 they know between 1,600 and 1,700 characters, of which they must have mastered between 1,000 and 1,100. By the time they take their O Level Examination when they’re 15 or 16, they will have mastered between 2,400 and 2,500 characters, 2,000 to 2,100 of which they must be able to write.

However despite this, most students still read for pleasure in English, which they’re more comfortable, but that depends on their family and the student themselves, says Dr. Chin.

The Mandarin taught in Singapore’s schools is very close to standard Beijing Mandarin and simplified characters are used. In Singapore it’s called 新加坡华语, Xīnjiāpō Huáyǔor Singaporean Mandarin. The Mandarin spoken on the street is called Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin and contains loan words from Malay and Chinese dialects also spoken in Singapore. It is quite natural for people in Singapore who “tend to mix up the vocabulary between Mandarin and English. They might say a Mandarin sentence but have an English or Malay word,” Dr. Chin says. However, under formal settings like meeting China or Taiwan counterparts or attending cultural or official events when Chinese is the main or one of the main languages, good Mandarin will be used.

Singapore doesn’t have actual immersion classes in elementary school, but some preschools are beginning to experiment with the idea. As families shift to speaking English rather than Chinese at home, immersion programs are seen as helpful to introducing children to the language they will study in school.

The Chinese textbook series used in Singapore schools is called华文, HuáwénChinese Language for Primary Schools or Chinese Language for Secondary Schools. It is also used by the Portland Public Schools Mandarin immersion program.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Gordon permalink
    April 29, 2013 11:08 pm

    I am wondering if you know how and where I can order the book you reference at the end of your article that PPS uses? Thanks!

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