The learning of mother tongues in Singapore schools is being enhanced on various fronts, from more support for those struggling with Chinese, Malay and Tamil to more opportunities for those who do well to deepen their knowledge.
A two-year programme that weaves in creative ways to learn Chinese, Malay or Tamil literature through immersion trips and camps, which until now has been available only at seven junior colleges, will be offered in 15 secondary schools from next year. The Language Elective Programme (LEP), as it is called, will also include three more JCs - Raffles Institution (Malay), Anderson Serangoon JC (Tamil) and National JC (Malay and Tamil).
More schools will also be encouraged to offer conversational mother tongue programmes in the next one to two years, to open them to as many students as possible, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday.
The learning of third languages such as French and Japanese, which Mr Ong described as currently a "four-year marathon that starts from Secondary 1 and ends at the O-level exams", will be made more flexible and open to students beyond the top 10 per cent. The Education Ministry (MOE) is also looking at more regional language choices at the conversational level, including having online lessons.
These moves, announced by Mr Ong at this year's Teachers' Conference, are part of the next thrust in the national Learning For Life movement. This has already seen less emphasis on grades and, by next year, a majority of schools would have scrapped mid-year examinations for some levels. There will be more focus, instead, on encouraging joy in learning.
"I call this Learning Languages For Life," said Mr Ong, adding that bilingualism also has more economic value in booming Asia.
And while young Singaporeans are less "emotionally connected to their ancestral lands and, by extension, mother tongues", they are curious about their history and what makes them Singaporean, he said.
"Ultimately, they will still trace back to the ancestral lands and mother tongues, but the motivation and the dots they connect are different," Mr Ong told the 1,700 teachers gathered at the Singapore Expo.
Fewer families are speaking their mother tongue as the dominant language at home, he said, but the percentage of bilingual families has risen from 80 per cent to 90 per cent over the past 20 years.
"It is timely for us to reinvigorate our efforts in language learning, particularly our mother tongue languages. It will be an effort fit for the times," he said.
The Chinese LEP will be offered in nine secondary schools, most of which are Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools that already have a special focus on Chinese culture, such as Hwa Chong Institution and Nan Chiau High School. "It is natural to start with these schools but, in time, we should extend to more non-SAP schools to broaden participation," said Mr Ong.
The Malay and Tamil LEPs will be available at three secondary schools each, such as Anderson Secondary for the former and Yishun Town Secondary for the latter.
The LEP will be offered to those who do well in their mother tongue at the end of Secondary 2, and will see them studying a separate literature subject in their mother tongue. Both the mother tongue and literature subjects will be examinable at the O levels.
For those who find the mother tongues tough going, there are already options to take the subjects at a lower level in primary and secondary school. Mr Ong said MOE is also piloting ways to support those who need dedicated attention for language learning.
Mr Tang Jui Piow, Nan Chiau's head of department for mother tongue language, said Chinese literature opens a unique window to the language and culture, and the school is already planning to invite writers and alumni to share their experiences. "We also hope to break down the frontiers between English and Chinese literature to appreciate their similarities and nuances."