Teaching in two tongues

Chew: Teachers have to teach in two languages to make sure their pupils still learn the lesson.

As more non-native Mandarin speakers enrol in SJKCs, learning becomes a new experience for both teachers and pupils

WITH many Chinese vernacular primary schools (SJKCs) across the country seeing an increase in the enrolment of non-Chinese pupils, the teachers at these schools have been tackling the challenge of teaching pupils with no prior knowledge of the language with gusto.

From organising extra classes after school to giving individual attention to pupils depending on class size, the teachers are dedicated to ensuring their pupils grasp their lessons well.

The most popular method employed by teachers when educating these pupils is teaching in a bilingual format, regardless of the subject, said Universiti Malaya Faculty of Education Department of Language and Literacy Education Assoc Prof Dr Chew Fong Peng.

“More specifically, they will mix Mandarin with English or Bahasa Malaysia (BM) within the same sentence,” she told StarEdu.

But that does not mean pupils are able to pick up what is being taught immediately.

“Teachers have to repeat themselves many times and this can slow down the pace of the class,” she said.

Noting that class composition can affect the speed of learning, Chew said it is more challenging for teachers to teach when the majority of the class does not understand Mandarin.

“If there are Mandarin-speaking pupils in the class, they can help coach those who do not understand,” she said, adding that this scenario can commonly be seen in large schools with a higher percentage of Chinese pupils.

“Pupils in schools with more Chinese-speaking pupils also pick up the language faster because they are immersed in it.

“But in low-enrolment schools with more non-Chinese pupils, teachers need to take the lead in guiding each pupil.”

She added that while some pupils have the advantage of having learnt some Mandarin earlier, this is not the case for everyone.

“In bigger schools, teachers will organise extra lessons after school for pupils who need additional support.

“Smaller schools also do the same, especially since many pupils have to stay back while waiting for their parents to finish work,” she said, adding that teachers sacrifice a lot of their time for their charges.

Pupils who are very weak or have no knowledge of the language will normally spend the first year learning how to pronounce, read and write “very simple Chinese words”, said Chew.

“It usually takes them two to three years to speak proper Mandarin. Even then, this is normally the case in schools where there are more native Mandarin speakers,” she said.

Chew added that between writing and speaking, pupils struggle more with learning to write as there are many strokes involved in the language.

Weighing in, Malaysia Education Exchange Association (MEEA) secretary-general Phun Teck Seng noted that the lack of a home environment where Mandarin is spoken is one of the main challenges for non-Chinese pupils.

“When we meet with SJKC teachers or conduct courses with them, they often express that their pupils rely heavily on them to learn the language at school,” he said.

He added that the teachers, however, receive support from the school community, including the board of management, parent-teacher association, and school head, in addressing the issue.

“Some of the steps taken include holding extra classes and implementing a study buddy programme, where one or two pupils coach their non-Chinese peers.

“These activities extend beyond the classroom to playtime and mealtime, allowing students to practise speaking the language more frequently,” he said.

He also said some teachers and board members use their own funds to purchase teaching aids, helping their pupils to master the language more effectively.

Rising numbers

According to Phun, the past decade has seen an increase in the enrolment of non-Chinese pupils in SJKCs.

“There is an annual increase of 1% to 2%. Currently, about 20% of pupils in SJKCs are non-Chinese, up from 16% five years ago. So far, there are 100,000 non-Chinese pupils out of a total of 500,000 pupils in SJKCs,” he said.

He added that the increase in enrolment is likely to continue.

“This increase is not limited to Malaysia, but is also observed worldwide,” he said.

In 2021, Chew said, about a quarter of the pupils in SJKCs in Kedah were non-Chinese - the highest percentage among the states in Malaysia.

Out of this data reported by China Press, she said over half of the student population at 32 out of the 53 low-enrolment SJKCs in Kedah were non-Chinese.

In East Malaysia, Chew said just over three-quarters of the pupils in Sabah’s SJKCs were non-Chinese.

“However, the majority of them are of mixed heritage and have one Chinese parent,” she added.

As for Sarawak, she said 6% of SJKCs had 90% or more non-Chinese pupils, and a total of 99 SJKCs had more non-Chinese than Chinese pupils.

In February, Sibu Chinese paramount community leader Temenggong Datuk Vincent Lau said non-Chinese pupils accounted for up to 36.02% of the student population in the state’s SJKCs.

More surprisingly, all 20 of the Year One pupils at SJKC Chi Sin, Bahau, are Malay.

Chew said the high percentage of non-Chinese pupils enrolling in SJKCs is due to parents wanting their children to master the Mandarin language as China continues to grow into an economic powerhouse.

“Other reasons are Chinese schools really emphasise discipline and tend to have better facilities,” she said, adding that these schools also provide Islamic Education classes for their Muslim pupils.

Additionally, there are teachers in low-enrolment schools who are willing to transport pupils to and from school as their parents are busy working.

“That is how dedicated the teachers are,” she said. Given the increasing number of non-Chinese pupils enrolling in Chinese vernacular schools, Chew said it is time for teacher education institutes and other higher education institutions to provide at least a subject course on how to teach non-Chinese pupils in these schools.

“This training is essential to prevent teachers from struggling and to help pupils learn the language faster,” she added.

There is also a sizeable population of non-Indian pupils in Tamil vernacular schools, said Malaysian Tamil School Education Development and Welfare Association president M. Vetrivelan.

“Most of these pupils do not have an issue with the language as they normally come from kampung (villages) with a lot of Indians and have been mingling with them from young.

“These children would know some basic words,” he said.

Extra effort for Mandarin mastery

I started teaching in 2006 and over time, I have seen more non-Chinese pupils enrolling in the two schools I have taught. From my experience, it takes at least three years for non-Chinese-speaking pupils to master spoken Mandarin. However, some children need more time and there are those who still struggle to speak Mandarin well even after reaching Year Six. While it takes time, I do my best to help those who struggle. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I held one-on-one extra classes with my pupils. However, since some pupils need to go for religious classes after school hours, I help them during morning reading time or when other pupils are doing their homework. – Tan, 43, Negri Sembilan

I have been teaching at my school for over 10 years and the number of non-Chinese-speaking pupils enrolling in my school has been increasing. Currently, at least a quarter of my class is non-Chinese, and it has been challenging to teach them. It takes longer to teach the class a topic because I need to help these pupils individually. Many of them struggle with writing and often forget what they have learnt after a few days, which means I have to repeat the lessons. – Angie Ng, 35, Kuala Lumpur

There has not been any partiality when it comes to how teachers conduct Mandarin lessons to my son, Kaushik Kirubagaran, who is currently enrolled in a Chinese school. My son is 16 and has been learning Chinese ever since he was in preschool and the guidance he has received from teachers who teach the language has been equal alongside his peers. This shows that the teachers are dedicated to making sure their students learn the language effectively. I believe it’s valuable for non-native speakers to learn Chinese, and I’m glad my son can speak the language. – Thiruselvi Suparamaniam, 50

I send my two children, Maisarah Balqiss Mohd Hisham, 15, and Muhammad Khalif Mohd Hisham, 10, to Chinese schools in KL. Both of them relish their schooling experiences and are keen on forging friendships across diverse ethnicities. The teachers have been helpful from the start so it makes learning easier and fun for my kids. Despite the difficulties of writing and reading, they managed to learn to speak in Mandarin in a very short time because of the help they received from the teachers. Sending them to Chinese schools is worthwhile because learning Mandarin is a valuable skill, given the rapid growth of how employers seek hires with added skills. – Dayana Rahman, 37

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