Love is a rebellious bird that cannot be tamed
Now that I'm out of the Singapore education system, it never ceases to amaze me how a system can malfunction so badly that people who studied Chinese for 10 to 12 years, and actually passed the exams, can emerge with a terrible command of the language. Like me, who comfortably passed my Chinese exams without studying for them. My Chinese grades were usually in the B range, except for my short stint in Higher Chinese, where it is almost inevitable that my grades were lowest in the class.
At least I still have a decent ability at speaking the language, I can still pass off as being fluent, until the conversation meanders to a topic of some substance. There are people I know who can't even order tea at a Chinese restaurant. And there are people I know who got an A for the subject and can barely speak the language.
Now that I'm studying a couple other languages, might I suggest some changes to the pedagogy of Chinese instruction in Singapore:
Firstly, the Chinese system is structured such that memorization is essential for doing well in the exams. When PRC scholars complain that they have to resort to memorizing those vocabulary handbooks in order to do well in the exams, you know something is very wrong. Now, some degree of memorization is definitely necessary when learning a language, but a language is a living, breathing thing, not an inanimate object that blindly follows a set of rules. Memorization is uninteresting, tedious, and bloody annoying. So students like me think of the language as uninteresting, tedious and bloody annoying. Now you know why students dislike the language. And why we can't use it properly.
And the material covered in class is bloody boring! Those passages in those crappy textbooks we use basically cover two topics: "Be a good student, this is how you should follow our Chinese traditions, don't question the teacher, don't disobey authority, you'll fare better being a sheep, maaaaaa..." and traditional stories, ancient folklore, watered down versions of the literature, etc. Now, the second is somewhat interesting, if not for the moralizing that goes behind almost every one of the stories. Where are the stories of modern China, INTERESTING newspaper articles, and basically things that hold our interest? Now, yes curriculum shouldn't be tailored entirely to the students' interests, but in language studies, you can always pick interesting topics. What about discussing pertinent topics like politics and economics? And why is newspaper reading almost always relegated to second priority? (Top priority, of course, is going through that bloody textbook and memorizing every word and sentence structure you can find in there.) Where's the interesting literature? Why are the writers we are exposed (and I grudgingly use that word) to born 5000 years ago? It's not that ancient writers are boring, but we need variety.
Also, there is so little emphasis on oral skills. Oral practice is almost entirely restricted to reciting the textbook out loud, which does nothing for our ability to speak the language. Which probably explains the phenomenon of A students who can't speak the language to save their lives. This is probably based on the outmoded Chinese tradition of "students/children should be seen but not heard" - why should we hear a student/child's opinion? Why not have lively debates in class, or discuss an INTERESTING newspaper article, event, and oh yes, films.
Although the second and third points is a result of the first - if there's a set syllabus to memorize, then class time will be spent memorizing all the boring stuff, and little time is left for interesting things like literature and current events.
So why do you think many students think of Chinese as a dead, outmoded language that is full of outdated and archaic traditions, and for those with libertarian tendencies like me, a symbol of oppression? And hence develop an adverse reaction to learning it?
Actually, I once had a Chinese teacher who stimulated some interest in the language. By then, I was too jaded by the crap in the system. She was genuinely interested in the language and culture, which was why she wanted to be a teacher, and her enthusiasm showed. She was a lot more open minded than most Chinese teachers I've ever had. And she made a tremendous effort to make lessons interesting, a la the stuff I outlined above. It did help that she didn't teach me in a major exam year, and it wasn't Higher Chinese, so there weren't many students taking the class and she was practically the only teacher. That is, she sets the exams.
I remember she once gave us a newspaper article that lamented the lack of interest in Chinese on the part of the youth, about overhearing a conversation that revolved around "I hate Chinese". We needed to write a response as a composition exercise. Instead of taking the predictable and safe route of "oh it's so sad that students aren't interested in their heritage", I wrote what was basically a more diplomatic version of what I just wrote. It was my best essay ever, because I was actually engaged in the topic (unlike complaint letters about neighbor's bird shitting on your windows). Because of her open-mindedness, it was also my best grade on an essay ever; I didn't get 100% because of I couldn't always string together sentences correctly.
Next, studying a language without endless, mindless, repetitive drills...