Language Education in the 1960’s – Memories of Singapore

Today’s kids are lucky. The Ministry of Education is constantly improving the school curriculum and teaching pedagogy. Teachers are better trained in the latest teaching methods to engage the students. Technology is brought in as teaching aid for our smart-phone savvy students. Their parents are properly educated and are able to help them with their studies. I need not have to mention that private tuitions are now more common than before.

What was it like in the 1960’s when I went to a neighbourhood primary school?

The schools had syllabi to cover each year from mathematics to science to languages. We needed to learn the mother tongue language (Chinese in my case), English Language and some exposure in Malay Language since it is our National Language.

We would be lucky if we could complete the syllabi at each level all the way to PSLE. There were too much competing needs for our mastery of each subject. Language learning became just like any other subject even when the teaching methods were clearly different.

Phonics with proper enunciations and pronunciations took a back seat in learning the English Language. Reading of story books was not common during my time. Speech and drama for kids was non-existent. As a result composition was not fresh and without creativity because of my lesser exposure to the language. (Back then going to the public library was a luxury and there was no Internet.)

As for the Chinese Language, it was even worse. We started with Traditional Chinese characters and then we switched to Simplified Chinese characters mid-way. So I was master of none. There was no Pinyin back then and I strained my ears to hear and then to recall how the Chinese teachers pronounced some words. There is a world of difference when we pronounce a word as NING or LING. A different meaning appears to the Chinese speaker if we mis-pronounce it. Even the four levels of tones for a word like NING can also make a difference in communication and make us a laughing stock for native speakers.

Back then we as students just rushed to cover the syllabi, just going for the bare minimum. There was no individual attention for the weaker students. We would be just as happy if we passed the subject. My parents who had no schooling knew no better. They only knew what a red mark in student report book meant. They would not be worried if we had all black or blue marks in the report book.

Sad, isn’t it?

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