A Rare Unicorn: Effectively Bilingual in Singapore

Did you know? Although she is our Head of Chinese, Teacher Li Lin is as skilled in English as she is in Chinese. However, her love and passion for Chinese culture led her to pursue studies in Shanghai.

Amaz­ing and a true rar­i­ty, effec­tive­ly bilin­gual indi­vid­u­als like Teacher Li Lin is almost akin to a uni­corn in Sin­ga­pore. She might be our Head of Chi­nese but Teacher Li Lin is also com­plete­ly pro­fi­cient in Eng­lish. In fact, she was one of only a few Sin­ga­pore­ans who opt­ed for a cross-cul­tur­al exchange expe­ri­ence first in Chi­na then back in Sin­ga­pore. On this rarely trod­den path, Teacher Li Lin earned a bachelor’s from the pres­ti­gious Fudan Uni­ver­si­ty in Shang­hai fol­lowed by a Mas­ters degree from the equal­ly pres­ti­gious and renowned Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Sin­ga­pore. Upon grad­u­a­tion, Teacher Li Lin joined the edu­ca­tion sec­tor, head­ing the Upper Pri­ma­ry Chi­nese cur­ricu­lum team at the Learn­ing Lab before bring­ing her exper­tise and expe­ri­ence to us head­ing Think Teach Acad­e­my’s Chi­nese Depart­ment, 鼎育.

In this inter­view arti­cle, we shine the spot­light on Teacher Li Lin. We ask her about her love for the Chi­nese cul­ture and lan­guage and get her to share more about her expe­ri­ence study­ing in Chi­na. We also take the chance to find out why she chose teach­ing as a career and whether she intends to tap on her Eng­lish prowess to teach Eng­lish one day.

Q: Could you tell us more about your experience studying in Shanghai? What was it like and why did you choose to apply for the programme?  

I think Chi­nese cul­ture and his­to­ry are one of the under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed sub­jects of our time. I devel­oped a pas­sion for them after read­ing nov­els when I was young. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to study in Fudan along­side the best in the world, came in uni­ver­si­ty and I imme­di­ate­ly jumped on it. The fac­ul­ty and stu­dents held them­selves to the high­est stan­dards and I learnt so much that I now apply into my class­room. It widened my world view, strength­ened my con­fi­dence, and allowed me to build trea­sured friend­ships. I will always be hap­py to have tak­en that leap of faith.

Q: Did your experience influence your decision to go into teaching?

I would not be here today with­out the sup­port of many great edu­ca­tors and men­tors that I met. I became a teacher so that I can pass on the inspi­ra­tion that was first gift­ed to me.

Q: I know this is an often asked question but I want to hear it from you. Why in your opinion is it important to not just learn but excel in Chinese?

Being bilin­gual today is no longer an advan­tage but a require­ment to stay com­pet­i­tive. At Think Teach 鼎育, I want to build a mind­set in our stu­dents to go beyond the syl­labus, to build the skills and con­fi­dence required to excel not just in Chi­nese, but as a life­long learn­er.

Q: So what would say is the level of Chinese of Singaporeans in general and of the students you encounter? Do you think our counterparts in China would be able to understand us?

Our coun­ter­parts in Chi­na nat­u­ral­ly have high­er pro­fi­cien­cy in Chi­nese than us and many of them are bilin­gual as well. Many top pro­grammes in Chi­na are taught in Eng­lish.

To sum­marise the aver­age stu­dent that I come across in gen­er­al, I would fur­ther break down the ques­tion into the fol­low­ing parts: Abil­i­ty to speak — To be improved. Most stu­dents face dif­fi­cul­ty in artic­u­lat­ing them­selves clear­ly with good vocab­u­lary.

Abil­i­ty to lis­ten — Mod­er­ate. Most stu­dents are able to com­pre­hend con­ver­sa­tions.

Abil­i­ty to write — To be improved. Most stu­dents will need guid­ance on how to struc­ture their thoughts and argu­ments into a well writ­ten essay.

Abil­i­ty to read — Mod­er­ate. Most stu­dents are able to under­stand words with­in the syl­labus, but will strug­gle with more advanced vocab­u­lary and phras­es.

With a more con­fi­dent learn­ing atti­tude towards mas­ter­ing the lan­guage, I do believe Sin­ga­pore­ans have what it takes to be under­stood more clear­ly. There­fore, I will advise stu­dents to read wide­ly and beyond the cur­ricu­lum. The inter­est and con­fi­dence to do so starts with being in a safe and encour­ag­ing envi­ron­ment that we offer here at Think Teach 鼎育.

Q: You have been heading 鼎育 for a number of years now. What is your vision for 鼎育 and how is that vision of yours seen in the academy’s Chinese programme?

My vision for our pro­gramme is to become one of the top Chi­nese pro­grammes in Sin­ga­pore where stu­dents can grow beyond the class­room and be equipped with real world skills, be effec­tive prob­lem solvers and suc­cess­ful in their future endeav­ours.

Q: So what would you say is one chief difference between 鼎育 and Chinese in schools and other learning centres?

鼎育 pro­vides a safe space for learn­ing and growth that is not always present in schools and oth­er cen­tres. In my class­room, I empha­sise that every stu­dent is heard and under­stood. It is where stronger stu­dents can push them­selves to be even bet­ter and weak­er stu­dents can feel sup­port­ed and moti­vat­ed with our team of ded­i­cat­ed teach­ers.

Q: On a more personal level, how did you become so proficient in Chinese and English? Do you have any tips to share?

It is dif­fer­ent for every­one, but the key to lan­guage is to find a medi­um that inter­ests you. For exam­ple, some find it in watch­ing movies and read­ing sub­ti­tles to learn Chi­nese. I am still learn­ing even till today but what works for me is think­ing through top­ics and con­ver­sa­tions in both lan­guages and prac­tis­ing trans­la­tion with dis­ci­pline.

Q: This would be a question I am sure parents would be most interested in. When you have kids, how would you ensure they grow up effectively bilingual?

I would teach them with inten­tion, immerse them in the right envi­ron­ment so that the lan­guage itself becomes sec­ond nature, pro­vide them with the right resources and show­er them with ade­quate encour­age­ment to build con­fi­dence in apply­ing the lan­guage bold­ly.

Q: Since it is important to start honing one’s language abilities at a young age, do you have any plans to kickstart a Primary 1 or even Kindergarten level Chinese programme in 鼎育?

This is cer­tain­ly an idea to explore as we con­tin­ue to build up the Low­er Pri­ma­ry Pro­gramme capa­bil­i­ties. We are cur­rent­ly an Upper Pri­ma­ry pow­er­house, but it is def­i­nite­ly good to start devel­op­ing the inter­est from a young age and some­thing worth explor­ing in the future.

Q: As you are answering my questions, it is clear that you are extremely comfortable in English. This is very rare for a Chinese teacher. Have you ever thought about teaching both English and Chinese?

I believe stu­dents have enough of me in just one lesson☺Perhaps, if my boss­es dou­ble my salary? Jokes aside, my pri­ma­ry focus is still Chi­nese because it is what I enjoy and trained to do. I employ bilin­gual­ism in my class­es so my stu­dents can under­stand the syl­labus bet­ter.

Q: It is customary that I end every interview with a personal question. Since it’s still early in the year, let me ask you about your goals for the year. What are some of your resolutions for 2023?

I have put off trav­el­ing for some time. Now that restric­tions are lift­ed, I hope to vis­it some new and inter­est­ing places this year!

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