In recent years, many Singaporean families have become all too familiar with the struggle to speak Mandarin, despite it being one of our country’s national languages.
According to the Speak Mandarin Campaign – a government initiative to encourage Singaporeans to speak Mandarin – 71% of Chinese households speak English as their main language at home, leaving only minority speaking mandarin.
In order to tackle this issue and increase focus on bilingualism, the Speak Mandarin Campaign conducted a nationwide Family Talent Competition earlier in June, where parents and children were able to bond and have fun with their children, all while learning and speaking Mandarin!
The winner of this year’s competition the Chua family who comes from a predominantly English-speaking family took up the challenge this year to script, speak and perform a short skit in Mandarin.
Source: Speak Mandarin Campaign
We caught up with Mr. Chua Chye Poh to find out how he, his wife and his youngest daughter Mona prepared for the competition and how parents can encourage their kids to speak Mandarin.
Source: Chua family
Q: In what language do you normally use to converse at home?
We speak both English and Mandarin at home. Mostly, Mona and I converse in English, and we converse with her mother in a mix of Mandarin and English. Mona likes to pick up on some Hokkien (which her mother and I do use at times), and Japanese (which her mother uses with her good friend).
Q: How hard is it for your daughter to cope with Chinese lessons/exams at school?
We are quite relaxed about her grades at school. She knows we expect her to do her best in whatever she does, and grades are not important to us. Our role mostly is to help Mona in her self-discovery journey.
Q: What made your family take up the challenge this year to script, speak and perform a short skit in Mandarin?
I agreed to taking part because Mona was really keen – actually she was motivated by the cash prize of $500. So it was an opportunity to get her commit to and work for her goal. It would also help her with her Mandarin. Surprisingly, we got pass the preliminary round to get into the finals. My wife then helped to improve the script, including suggestion of adding illustrations to enhance the contents. That was what prompted her to join in at the finals so she could help flip the drawings we made. We were very surprised since she was normally super-unwilling to receive strangers’ attention. I guess she also wanted to show Mona her support, that was why she agreed to doing it exceptionally.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced and what did they learn from the experience?
We actually took it on our stride and enjoyed the whole process without feeling any pressure. Mona particularly liked the drawing part which all three of us put in our role. We practiced hard for the script, and had many happy and some agonising moments together.
Q: In your opinion, what is the importance of mastering your mother tongue, and how relevant is it in today’s Singapore?
This is a loaded question since mother tongue in Singapore is a complex issue. My short answer is: our roots are too important to be taken seriously.
For economic and other reasons, English has become realistically a most effective & integrating language to use among all the different ethnic groups and with the world. We have benefitted greatly from it, so this is unlikely to change.
As for Mandarin, since it is not a mother tongue for some Singaporean-Chinese families who speak English at home, it may be perceived as only an exam subject which kids are to study and pass in school. Thankfully, now being able to speak Mandarin has a market value, it may be a good time to take a lighter approach. Instead, I’d suggest the schools can emphasise more on culture, civic, family & social etiquette, etc. and improving our graciousness as an individual, in the family, community and as a society – this would attribute greater meaning to using Mandarin or any other mother tongues.
Q: What tips do you have for parents to encourage a love for Mandarin in their children? How can they make learning Mandarin more interesting for children in this digital age?
When Chinese is no longer a subject to study and pass in school, and the emphasis is no longer just about speaking Mandarin, parents have to think and decide what (about their Chinese roots) essentially, they want to retain and how to pass down to their children.
On the other hand, the children will now learn in school more about Chinese history, culture, the traditions, the right & wrong behaviour and etiquette in family, community and society – the resource from the Speak Mandarin campaign can now be channelled accordingly.
We hope parents have found the Chua family’s story inspiring and are encouraged to teach their kids Mandarin!