Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mother Tongue in the Singapore Education System

Attending local education in a foreign country entails adhering to the school education system. For other countries, it can be a breeze esp if the foreign children speak the local language (eg. in the US, English). But for countries like Singapore where there is a required Mother Tongue subject, adjusting to the education system can be quite challenging.

For foreign students, esp Permanent Residents (PRs), who started primary 1 in local schools, taking up mother tongue is a requirement. They can choose from the 3 mother tongue choices available - Chinese, Malay, Tamil. When I was scouting for a primary school for Kelvin 5 years ago, I spoke to a few school admin officers regarding mother tongue and the possibility of applying exemption. All of them have informed me that NO ONE can be exempted to take MT, esp in the case of my son who is a PR. Every student going to P1 should first choose a MT and then the school will observe the child's performance throughout the year. If the child performs well, then he has to continue. If the child does not do well, then there is an option to apply for exemption or take foreign language in lieu of mother tongue. From then on I wondered how MT and my son's performance in the subject will affect his marks - PSLE, O level, A level, entrance to uni. I know, it's looking too much too early into the future. But this is my son's future we're talking about and I think most, if not all, parents would want a better future for their children. We could pave they way for them to achieve success. Any wrong or right decision we do now will definitely have an impact on what will happen to them in the future. As I am writing this blog, I looked back into the email reply from MOE on my queries.

Anyway, most of the Filipino parents I know opted for the children to take up Chinese as they deem it the most useful among the 3 with the Chinese economy growing and all. Other parents opted for Malay as it has some resemblance to Filipino (national language in the Philippines). In both cases, some children adjust well in the first few years of primary education, while others just couldn't cope. Since we didn't have a choice but to choose one language, we opted for Kelvin to take Chinese as his MT, same reason as most parents did - to hopefully have an edge in the future. We just hoped and prayed things will be fine with him.

Fast forward...Now, my son is already in P5.  He performed quite well in P1 and P2, getting Band 1 marks which really surprised us. He really had an interest in the subject.  He was even offered to take Higher Mother Tongue in P3 (or P4, can't really remember), which was a surprise for me because I thought only those students who get higher Band 1 marks will be offered the subject. Again, we had a dilemma. Will we let him take Higher Mother Tongue which although may be more difficult, promises some benefits in PSLE (extra points I think) and in higher education? I consulted Kelvin MT teacher and his Kumon tutor. Both suggested he take the subject.  Everyone warned us that MT, along with the other subjects, will have a big jump in P3. And I still have to consider than another subject will be added in P3 - Science. After much deliberation of the pros and cons, we decided for Kelvin to turn down the offer and just take the normal MT. Kelvin still did quite well, but his marks went down as compared to P1 and P2. He got Band 2. His MT teacher suggested we get a private tutor to improve his performance, and we did get one. Come P4, his grades dropped tremendously in MT, while the other subjects improved as compared to P3. He still passed, barely hanging in there. I think with all of the activities he had in school for year 2010 - remedials, CCAs - he got so exhausted with the schedule taking into consideration he still needed to have tuition at home once a week for his Chinese. He decided he didn't want to have tuition in P5. He wanted to try it out on his own. I agreed to his suggestion. We will then observe his results for CA1 and decide from there. It's either he gets tuition again, or we apply for exemption, or any other option.

Thus, the panic and stress I now feel at the start of the school year when he ventures into preparing for PSLE, coupled with forum discussions on other parents' dilemma with their kids taking mother tongue or foreign language.

I browsed through MOE website again and talked to other parents who have the same concerns.  I heard and read a lot of different experiences and views on the matter. It just got me more confused. I don't like being clueless especially concerning my kids future so I called the school's admin officer to ask for more information and possible options. Most of the info I got was already known to me. I called MOE to verify info and also ask for options. I noticed there were conflicting info regarding requirements, esp with the foreign language in lieu of mother tongue. I then decided to email the principal and set an appointment so we could discuss the matter further. I prefer face to face discussion so I could ask all the possible questions I could think of. I would be more comfortable knowing that all my questions are answered. This week, I had the discussion with the principal and I was "enlightened". Here are some points we discussed:

  • students who start P1 in Singapore have to choose a mother tongue (MT). No one is exempted. After a year of observing the child's progress in learning MT, parents can opt to apply for exemption and apply to take up a foreign language (eg. French, Japanese, German) in lieu of MT. A proof of enrolment in a language centre is required to be submitted to MOE. The principal suggested that as early as P2, if the child really cannot cope with MT, foreign language should be considered as an option so as to have a good foundation in the subject at the earlier stage. It would benefit the child more in the long run. The set back however is that the child will have to take language courses outside the school, meaning extra hours taken away from supposed time to study at home. Another thing is extra cost to enrol the child in a language centre.
  • In case of exemption, only those children who have special needs will be considered, or those Singaporeans who have studied overseas for some time and came back to study in Singapore. This is still subject to MOE approval.
  • For those who opt to apply for foreign language, big sigh of relief as this is not included in the PSLE. Their marks will be computed differently from those who have taken MT in the exams. This means greater chances of having higher PSLE results, depending on their performance in the 3 subjects (English, Math, Science).
  • Bear in mind that even if the MOE approved FL in lieu of MT in primary, the student still needs to apply for FL in secondary. This FL is also included in the O levels and the student needs to pass the subject.
  • Opting for FL in lieu for a child in the upper primary level is not really recommended, according to the Principal. This is because it will be a big change for the child in terms of learning. Besides, he has already been exposed to the language for around 4-5 yrs of his life. Unless the child's grades are really that low in MT while in other subjects are quite high, then option to take FL would be deemed more applicable and beneficial for the child.
  • If the child is passing in MT, and is already in P5 (as inthe case of my son), the Principal suggested he continue taking MT and try harder to pull up the grades from P5 to P6. At the same time, maintain if not improve the performance in the other 3 subjects. This way, if the child does good in the 3 subjects, it can pull up the results of the MT. Focus on the oral skills was highlighted as this takes up a big chunk in PSLE markings.
  • whether the child takes MT or FL in primary level, he needs to keep the choice of language in secondary level, or switch back to MT in the case of FL in lieu. The important thing is to pass the language in the O levels. One good news to me about the discussion of O levels is that even if MT/FL results for O levels is low, as long as it is passing, it will not have that much impact because the core subjects (Math, Science, Humanities, etc) are the ones being looked into, unless the course of interest is about languages probably.
  • PSLE marks 188-200, children can opt to take Normal Academic or Express. Another sigh of relief. Before the discussion with the teacher, my idea of PSLE result to qualify for Express is 250! Great pressure for my son I would say. But now that I have been informed of the lower range, I am more confident that there is bigger hope :)
At the end of the discussion, I was enlightened, relieved and hopeful. Getting the right information is really helpful.

Now we just need to wait for Kelvin's CA1 results to have a final say on this matter. Talking to Kelvin the night before I met with the Principal, he mentioned that he wanted to continue taking MT. I guess he really is keen on learning the language. He is quite hopeful that he will do good in PSLE and I want to support whatever he decides on. 

It's just sad to see that he gets too much pressure on getting good marks. It takes the fun out of learning something when focus is more on the marks.

Keeping fingers crossed.


  1. hi czyreil, so how was it? We are on the same shoe.. I'm still thingking if I should let my son take French in lieu of MT

  2. Hi Luth, my elder son is in P6 now. He continued taking his MT Chinese, as advised by his form teacher last year. He was able to recover at the end of the year (P5). This year, his CA1 was not good, but he was able to improve his results for his SA1.

    as for my younger one, in P2 now, I applied for Foreign Language in lieu of MT. He started taking French lessons thru an online tutorial. So far he is ok with it. He is still attending MT lessons in school at times. So he is still learning some Chinese.

  3. hy czyreil, long time no chat... Zarah is in P1 now and is failing miserably in MT (Chinese).. I am now considering to apply for exemption.. any advise in FL in lieue of MT Chinese>> anong site yang online tutorial for French>? I learned MOE will also offer Spanish next year.. so that's quite a relief.. I heard French is not that easy either...I still want her to continue to learn Chinese and be conversant man lang sa Chinese.. but I do not want her to continue to suffer...your thoughts please?

  4. Hi! Glad to hear from you. Yung bunso ko is taking French via French Faster. Thru skype yun, once a week. I think Zarah and Ira had the same (unfortunate) experience in P1. In my son's case, he was frustrated because his other subjects were all Band 1 tapos fail sa Chinese. So I asked for advice from school and opted for FL in lieu of MT. He has been taking French since P2. He is in P3 now. I opted for French as I had a background in the language so kahit papano I can teach him and learn with him (kasi yun yung way of teaching ng French Faster, the parent learns with the child). But he is still sitting in sa Chinese class niya and I told him to listen so he can learn din.

  5. just an update, although a bit late. My elder son, Kelvin, took his PSLE last year and got a B in his Chinese!!! So there is hope :) For those parents who have children taking Chinese and are a bit concerned about their children's MT performance in P5 and P6, I suggest you have a talk with the MT teacher to help your children cope. Motivation and support is the key. I'm thankful and proud that my son was able to go through PSLE with a mother tongue not his own, and even got a B!

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  7. Hi, I found your explanation very insightful, even clearer than the Ministry's website. Could you share a bit more on the FL in lieu of MT? Does your son have to take tests/exams and are these grades reflected in his school report card? What about the PSLE exams, who sets the test for FL? Many thanks in advance. - concerned parent

    1. Hi Sharon! Thank you for finding my explanation very insightful. I'm glad I was able to help in that area.

      Yes, my son does take test/exams usually at the end of the year. His teacher also gives him small tests and homework in every topic. These grades, however, are not reflected in his school report card.

      As for PSLE, so far the MOE has not included FL in the PSLE. My son will be taking his PSLE this year and we have not been informed of him taking FL for PSLE.

      From what I gathered from friends who's children have taken FL, the students will have to go to MOE centers to take their FL in secondary. Their grades will then be reflected in the school report card.

      I will only be able to update you on this once my son gets to secondary school next year. Keep you posted!

      Hope this helps again.

  8. hi sis! i would like to ask how is the french faster online? Is it better than going to a group class? Appreciate your reply. Actually i am searching Pinoysg but it is not there anymore.
    Thanks thanks.

    1. Hi Sheryl!

      I think every student will have different learning preferences. For my son, I find that for FL he will benefit more having a one-to-one set up and not in a group. He can concentrate better and the lesson progress will be based on his own pace, still following the teacher's curriculum.

      I actually thought of transferring him to a group class in a CC where a friend of mine put her son into. The fees are definitely lower, which was what made me think about it in the first place. When I proposed this to my son though, he reclined as he was already comfortable with the current learning environment. His French Faster teacher's approach to teaching is effective for him. The teacher is very friendly and accommodating and patient. Works well with my son's learning style.

      Hope this helps!

  9. Replies
    1. Hi! Have you already made your decision to engage French Faster?

  10. Hi! May I ask if MTL still applies to foreigners? Kasi nababasa ko lang is if PRs. My girl is on DP and is now in K1 and has Chinese subjects sa childcare. Super curious lang talaga. This MTL part is not very clear to me.

    1. Hi, Ice Cabrera! I checked the MOE website to get the facts on this. Only Singapore citizens and PRs po ang compulsory to take MT. Here is the link to give you more info about this:

      Hope this helps :)

  11. Hi Karen,

    I have a son whos in p1 now. He’s taking chinese as MTL. On the first day of his MTL class, his teacher talked to me and commented that my son may not cope with the chinese as mt. I was suprised that she thinks that my son cannot cope right away without even giving him a chance to learn. He had a chinese class during his k1-k2 class but I admit he was struggling. The teaber told us to consider taking malay since it’s similar to our filipino language. She also recommended to take foreign language in lieu of MT.

    Can my son apply for FL at this point though he’s still in p1? Or should we wait til he’s in p2?

    Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.

    - Mummy A

    1. Hi Mummy A! Thanks for reading my blog. It's saddening that the teacher's approach to your son's case is a bit negative. In my opinion the teacher should at least try to motivate and inspire the students to learn a new language specially because it's a difficult one to master even for native speakers.

      As for your question, if the teacher is suggesting it then I assume the school will provide support in your application. In my younger son's case, the teacher and school asked us to wait and observe for the whole year. When the results came out and we really thought he wouldn't cope even with a private tutor, and because the low MT marks have hit his confidence hard, I asked to apply for FL. At least we have it a chance because we wouldn't know if he'd do well or not unless we tried, right?

      Hope you and your son with the support of his teacher can make an appropriate decision for him. All the best.

  12. Thanks Mummy Karen for the reply. I am going to my son's school tomorrow to submit the MTL form. According to my son's form teacher, we did not submit the MTL form to take Chinese as MTL. But I know we did. Because of this incident, I am thinking if we can not submit the form and apply for MTL in lieu instead. I don't know if it's possible.. I have asked some of our friends also for their advise whether (a) let my son continue study chinese as MTL or (b) apply MTL in lieu at this time. Most of them advised us to go for (a), and enrol him in a chinese tuition. They said it's too early to apply for (b) and may get rejected by MOE easily. Another thing is if we are sure daw ba na we are still here in SG by the time my son reach P5 (since we are not PR, i don't know).

    May I check with you, if we let my son continue his chinese class and fail all his tests in P1, would that affect his grade or his standing in school for P2? Honestly, i am really not sure what would be the impact if he keeps failing his chinese class in P1. Hope you can advise me on this.

    Thank you!
    Mummy A


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