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What’s it like learning Mandarin in Singapore?

October 6, 2012

So should we all just move to Singapore? Maybe not. I asked an American mother whose job took her family to Singapore when her daughter was still a toddler to tell me about their experiences. She found that while there were many excellent aspects to the experience, there was quite a bit of downside, too.

Her daughter began learning Mandarin at a bilingual preschool when she was two-and-a-half. When it came time to start first grade, her Chinese was good enough for entry in the neighborhood primary school’s Mandarin track. She attended Raffles Girls Primary School, which was one of the better public schools in the city-state.

She did well in her course work during her six years in Singapore, thanks to extra tutoring, and thrived in the structured environment of the school system. When the family moved arrived back in the United States for seventh grade, her daughter was able to get a place at a the Mandarin immersion school in San Francisco and has had no trouble keeping up.

The schools had well-funded music and sports programs. Intellectualism was encouraged and all children got to participate in a variety of activities as part of their school day. “The biggest benefit of life in Singapore was the experience of living abroad — meeting new people, having new experiences, etc.,” the mother said of their time there.

Still, there is no magic bullet to creating the Perfect School – even in the city-state. Despite identical government funding and curriculum, students who attend schools in the wealthier districts tend to outperform those in the less affluent.  .

“Even if the Singapore government doubled or tripled funding for low-performing schools, I bet children in the wealthier neighborhoods would still get better test scores,” the American mom said.

Children from rich families have access to expensive, high-quality tutoring to supplement their education and are better able to transport their children to study centers, über-competitive parents also gain status from their child’s school placement and exam scores, she said. The family is motivated for the child to excel.

The test scores touted internationally refer to students in the most academically demanding courses, many of whom have been nurtured since pre-K by academically-minded families. Sixth-grade students take an especially grueling test that determines what type of secondary school they will enter. According to the Ministry of Education, last year’s scores saw kids going to: advanced (62%); academic (23.1%); technical (11.4%) or vocational (2.6%) secondary schools.

Many Singaporean school children struggle with spoken English even though much of the curriculum is taught in English. Teachers throughout the city-state speak a pidgin version of the language known as Singlish and writing assignments often reflect a lack of proper sentence structure. The government’s “Speak Good English” campaign did little to encourage fluency.

The pressures put on students in high-performing schools in Singapore are ones that many American parents might find unreasonable or even damaging.

The American mom said her daughter scored 94.5 in English, 95.0 in Chinese and 87.0 in Math on her first report card. The teacher wrote at the bottom that the student “needs to be more meticulous so as to attain better results.”

The grading curve in Singapore is 85-100 for “Band One” so her daughter’s grades were the equivalent of straight As. “I don’t know about other parents, but that means ice cream sundaes for all at my house,” the mom said.

Unreasonably Rigid?

The school system can also seem unreasonably rigid. Singapore’s school year runs on a calendar year and kicks off Jan 2. Everyone born in 1999, for instance, is in the same grade and expected to be at the same level.

Brutal mid-terms are given at the beginning of May. They often contain new material that won’t be introduced until the second-term, if at all. When the American mom asked about this, the teacher responded “We like to challenge them.” Bad grades for the mid-term often mean students spend their four-week break in June studying.

Finals occur in October and there’s a week off before when kids are expected to cram with their private tutors. All extra-curricular activities are suspended in September/October. It is not a very joyful time. After finals, the students do nothing until the year ends in mid-November. The American mom’s take-home: They may have a longer school year, but they’re not maximizing learning.

Each class has 30 or more kids. Her daughter’s sixth-grade math class had 42. “Her teachers didn’t cover all that much in the classroom and the homework load was often freakishly light because the teachers assumed kids got assignments from tutors.

According to the American mom, “the No. 1 difference between Singapore’s education system and that of the U.S. is the expectation that children will have hours of private tutoring every week. And it’s not cheap.

“Teachers often moonlight as tutors. Our Chinese tutor was an `education mother’ from the Mainland. She accompanied her brilliant daughter who was on a scholarship. The tutor came two times a week for 90 minutes. She charged 45 Singapore dollars per hour ($37 US). Starting from fourth grade, my daughter had a math/science `homework helper’ for two hours every Sunday morning.”

Rote memorization is often prized over true learning:

The first time my daughter asked me to help her study for an English spelling test I was impressed with the vocabulary. But guess what? The kids weren’t expected to know what the words meant – only to spell them! I asked the teacher about this and she gave me a blank stare. She then told me I could teach my daughter the meanings if I wanted to, but because it’s a spelling test, she only needed to spell the words.

My daughter was once asked to read a composition about orangutans and then fill in a worksheet.

First question: How tall is an orangutan?

She parroted what was in the composition, which was around 1.4 meters or so. I asked her – what’s a meter? How tall are you? She had no idea so I got out a measuring tape. It turned out an orangutan was about the same size as my daughter, so she added that into her answer.

Another question: How long does an orangutan stay with its mother? The answer was six years, which was a year younger than my daughter at the time. She wrote “Six years” and added “I’m seven and I’m not ready to leave my mother yet!”

The teacher handed back the assignment and crossed out my daughter’s added comments, writing “Irrelevant” in red pen. I mentioned this to the principal. “Oh well,” she said.

My daughter failed her science midterm one year. Most of her class failed it. Einstein might have failed it. The teacher was incompetent and they learned nothing. Instead of conducting a simple experiment in front of the class, the teacher showed a YouTube video of it. Guess what was needed to do the experiment? A bowl of water, a plastic cup and some cotton.

Because of the massive failure, the school offered a “remedial” class given by local high-school students. It was so fun and hands-on that parents of the kids who passed called to complain that their kids were being punished by the exclusion. My daughter aced the final. Happy ending!

Overall, the American mom says, the experience was a good one. Since moving

back to the U.S., her daughter’s English has gotten better and her Mandarin worse, as would be expected moving from a Chinese-speaking to an English-speaking country.

Still, don’t believe all the hype: Singapore isn’t an educational paradise. Perhaps nowhere is.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 8, 2013 11:08 am

    Ha, this is interesting. I’m an IELTS teacher (tutor) in Singapore. I teach mainly international students who take English as a Second Language. I was born in Singapore and have lived most of my life here.

    It’s interesting to see how other people view our country’s education system. I think it’s not just Singapore but all over Asia. Education is huge and done differently I guess from western countries.

    Anyway, for an American mum to put her kid in a local/public school is not very normal. Most put them in expensive private international schools. I’m sure it was an experience for the kid!

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