Your child dislikes learning Chinese. Should you be worried as a parent?

We rack our brains on a daily basis to think of novel and ingenious ways to improve our Primary School Chinese programme. What this article is about is my personal sharing of the importance of Chinese in three areas of my past and present work, and how much I wish my Chinese was so much better than just “conversational.”

by Co-Founder, Algene Tan

We rack our brains on a dai­ly basis to think of nov­el and inge­nious ways to improve our Pri­ma­ry School Chi­nese pro­gramme. We know many chil­dren loathe and strug­gle with Chi­nese. In a bid to turn their frowns into smiles, we strive to incor­po­rate fun and relata­bil­i­ty into our Chi­nese cur­ricu­lum. 

That said, please wor­ry not and read on for this is not anoth­er run-of-the-mill arti­cle about how a tuition cen­tre makes learn­ing Chi­nese fun. This arti­cle is also not some cau­tion­ary tale about a stu­dent hat­ing Chi­nese, doing bad­ly in Chi­nese and jeop­ar­dis­ing an oth­er­wise decent PSLE score. What this arti­cle is about is my per­son­al shar­ing of the impor­tance of Chi­nese in three areas of my past and present work, and how much I wish my Chi­nese was so much bet­ter than just “con­ver­sa­tion­al.”

Chinese in my past life as a corporate lawyer

Chi­na is the land of the nou­veau riche. The amount of wealth gen­er­at­ed in and flow­ing out of Chi­na is breath-tak­ing. While work­ing as a cor­po­rate lawyer in a top law firm in Sin­ga­pore, I have dealt with my fair share of Chi­nese clients and coun­sels. More often than not, we were expect­ed to con­verse, instruct and advise in Chi­nese. It was also not uncom­mon to be asked to draft, review and trans­late doc­u­ments which were in Chi­nese.

I remem­ber those try­ing days. I would bare­ly have sur­vived if not for my com­pan­ion, ‘Google trans­late,’ and wished great­ly that I had paid more atten­tion to hon­ing my Chi­nese while I was still school­ing. If only I had tak­en a keen­er inter­est in the lan­guage, I would not have had to suf­fer so much.

A strong com­pe­ten­cy in Chi­nese will be unde­ni­ably advan­ta­geous as the need to inter­act in Chi­nese with the Chi­nese nation­als will only grow in the near future. The COVID pan­dem­ic has thrust Sin­ga­pore into the spot­light as arguably Asia’s numero uno finan­cial hub. More of Asia’s rich and famous are also choos­ing Sin­ga­pore as their ide­al res­i­dence. Indeed, with the dimin­ish­ing appeal of Hong Kong and main­land Chi­na due to their strin­gent COVID stances, we are wit­ness­ing more invest­ment and wealth flow­ing towards the direc­tion of Sin­ga­pore.

On this front, the one piece of advice I would give to you as par­ents is this: If you want your chil­dren to be able to take the busi­ness world by its horns, ensure that they learn their Chi­nese well. Do not let them off the hook with the same-old excuse of hat­ing or hav­ing no inter­est in the lan­guage!

Chi­nese is so impor­tant. And not just for the PSLE!

Chinese when communicating with first generation Singaporean families  

A Chi­nese par­ent of ours recent­ly shared an inter­est­ing arti­cle on LinkedIn. The Straits Times report­ed that 1 in 5 boys enlist­ed for Nation­al Ser­vice is a new cit­i­zen or per­ma­nent res­i­dent, up from 1 in 20 in the ear­ly 2000s. That Chi­nese par­ent cap­tioned the arti­cle by proud­ly pro­claim­ing that her eldest son was one of the boys that made up the lat­est sta­tis­tic.  

It was heart­en­ing to see how much appre­ci­a­tion and pride she had for Sin­ga­pore even though she was not born and bred here. But what real­ly dawned on me was that there are indeed many more ‘new’ cit­i­zens in our midst. There are also many young chil­dren among us and whom we have the priv­i­lege of teach­ing that are first-gen­er­a­tion Sin­ga­pore­ans.

What are first-gen­er­a­tion Sin­ga­pore­ans? If your child is the first in your fam­i­ly to be born in Sin­ga­pore and made a cit­i­zen of Sin­ga­pore, he or she would count as a first-gen­er­a­tion Sin­ga­pore­an. For the longest time, as part of a pro­tract­ed nation­al pol­i­cy, Sin­ga­pore has been wel­com­ing for­eign tal­ent from coun­tries like Malaysia and Chi­na to boost and com­ple­ment our work­force. This pool of for­eign tal­ent has tire­less­ly toiled for Sin­ga­pore for decades and made a home for them­selves here.

Fun­ni­ly enough, our for­eign tal­ents have been so nat­u­ralised that most have also adopt­ed the Sin­ga­pore­an fan­fare for enrich­ment class­es. We feel extreme­ly com­fort­ed because the tuition cul­ture in Sin­ga­pore is stronger than ever! Jokes aside, the point I am try­ing to make in this sec­tion is that just like the Sin­ga­pore army, we too are receiv­ing and teach­ing an increas­ing num­ber of chil­dren who are ‘new’ cit­i­zens or per­ma­nent res­i­dents. Many of these chil­dren have par­ents who are Chi­nese or Malaysians who are more com­fort­able speak­ing in Chi­nese. 

What has that meant for us? Yes of course, more stu­dents to teach, but also an increas­ing need to con­verse with par­ents in Chi­nese! For some­one like myself with only a “con­ver­sa­tion­al” com­pe­ten­cy in Chi­nese, it has not been a bed of ros­es. You have no idea how much tor­ture it is to know what you want to say to par­ents but not have the words in Chi­nese to say it.

If you are one of the par­ents who have been on the receiv­ing end of my poor Chi­nese, I apol­o­gise. But if you are a par­ent whose child is resist­ing learn­ing their Chi­nese well, then please lis­ten to my advice and encour­age your child not to give up on learn­ing Chi­nese.    

Chi­nese is so impor­tant. And not just for the PSLE!

Chinese in my pursuit to expand Think Teach abroad 

For the ben­e­fit of those unaware, Think Teach is not just in Sin­ga­pore. Since 2018, we have been expand­ing Think Teach over­seas. Our team of teach­ers have taught in Shang­hai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi. The list does not stop here, but we have plans to grow Think Teach to an inter­na­tion­al brand.

Boon, Shou Yee and me trav­el­ling around the world to pro­mote Think Teach (2018)

Boon and Shou Yee teach­ing our first IB class in Shang­hai (2018)

Me teach­ing our first pri­ma­ry school class in Shang­hai (2019)

Me teach­ing our first pri­ma­ry school class in Shang­hai (2019)

For the pur­pose of this arti­cle, I want to high­light my expe­ri­ence in Shang­hai. Before the COVID pan­dem­ic, we were very active in teach­ing there. We even had cen­tres in the prime dis­tricts of Pudong and Puxi. From 2018 to 2020, I was shut­tling back and forth between Sin­ga­pore and Shang­hai. It was a tir­ing but extreme­ly reward­ing expe­ri­ence.

But that was where my lim­it­ed Chi­nese had returned to taunt and ham­per me. I strug­gled a lot com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the Chi­nese locals because my Chi­nese abil­i­ty was not up to scratch. There were so many times I had to tell the Chi­nese par­ents to type their mes­sages to me in WeChat so that I could trans­late them auto­mat­i­cal­ly to Eng­lish. I would then do the same to them in Eng­lish and they would trans­late my mes­sages to Chi­nese. It was a hilar­i­ous sit­u­a­tion in hind­sight, but was utter­ly embar­rass­ing when I was in that moment.  

I tru­ly believe that I could have done more and got­ten even fur­ther in Chi­na had my Chi­nese not pulled me back. It is impos­si­ble to change things now, but what I can do is to pre­vent get­ting caught with my pants down again! I intend to work on and improve my Chi­nese today and every day from today. And my hope is that your child does the same.

Chi­nese is so impor­tant. And not just for the PSLE!

Me being inter­viewed by CNA on Think Teach in Shang­hai (2021)

Concluding Words

These are three mem­o­rable inci­dents from my life where I expe­ri­enced first-hand the impor­tance of being com­pe­tent in Chi­nese. Regard­less of your child’s sen­ti­ments towards the lan­guage, I hope that they see the impor­tance of Chi­nese and push through with learn­ing it. Learn­ing Chi­nese is not just for the PSLE or for any oth­er exam­i­na­tion after that. Learn­ing Chi­nese is for life: a life-long endeav­our and a nec­es­sary life tool.

Lest par­ents think that my Chi­nese was beyond repair, I would like to save my rep­u­ta­tion by declar­ing that I was a High­er Chi­nese stu­dent through­out my years in for­mal edu­ca­tion (I hope that counts for some­thing!). The scary rev­e­la­tion I am mak­ing in this arti­cle is that what we learn in school is often not enough for the real world. We must find ways for our chil­dren to fall in love with the lan­guage so that they con­tin­ue to learn and use it beyond the class­room.

The rea­son? Sim­ply because Chi­nese is so impor­tant. And not just for the PSLE!

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