4 ways to spark love of Mandarin among Singapore youth

17 Jul 2020

One finding in the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)’s survey on race, religion and language published last month caught our eye.

The survey found that the percentage of Chinese here who can speak Mandarin well or very well has improved in recent years for four different age groups above 26.

But for those aged 18-25, the percentage of those who said they were proficient in Mandarin dropped from 85 per cent in 2013 to 83 per cent in 2018.   

As youths passionate about Mandarin proficiency and bilingualism, we find the research results worrying.

Bilingualism is integral to the global competitiveness of our workforce. The foundations for bilingual competencies of our youths should be built at a young age.

The IPS research paper said this result “seems to suggest our youngest cohorts are potentially more exposed to English-speaking households, environments, and media in line with our globalised economy; and have lowered exposure to Mandarin contexts”.

How about the increasing relevance of Mandarin against the backdrop of China’s rapid rise as an economic superpower, and Singapore’s efforts to promote bilingualism?

We posit that practical economic interests may not be an effective incentive for youths to learn Chinese; they may be too young to fully appreciate its utility.

Worse, the difficulty of mastering a second language could further dampen the motivation in Singapore’s competitive academic environment.

Understanding these challenges, we propose several methods to invigorate interest in learning Chinese language among Singaporean youths.

First, initiatives that aim to increase the appeal of Chinese language and culture should keep pace with the modern tastes of tech-savvy Generation Z.

It is high time to think beyond commemorating the Lantern Festival, reciting Li Bai’s poetry, or watching lion dances.

Such activities often spark more boredom than enthusiasm in youth.

Instead, schools could embrace more modern methods to promote Chinese language and culture. These could include using TikTok or WeChat to generate discussion on a wide range of topics such as leisure, food and fashion.

Furthermore, youth in Singapore should be encouraged to use fun and engaging platforms to interact more with Chinese-speaking youths in Southeast Asia.

A way to do this is through interactive online games such as Wangzhe Rongyao (Honour of Kings) which have taken various youth communities by storm.

Through the game, players can learn more about historical figures such as Zhuge Liang, a military strategist and Wu Zetian, the only Empress in China from the Tang dynasty, as well as interact with fellow players all over the world in standard Mandarin.

The vast amount of creativity, knowledge and stories in such “new media” platforms may resonate more strongly with youths and readily introduce them to topics with Mandarin as a medium, including current affairs and lifestyle.

Second, we need to create more communities for youths to communicate in Chinese based on common interests.

A case in point is Business China Youth Chapter which both of us are involved in.

It connects like-minded youths who have interest in business, economics, current affairs and arts across Singapore and China. Its dialogues and presentations are commonly conducted in Mandarin.

Such communities allow youths to practise using spoken and written Chinese readily with peers and may be more effective at sparking genuine interests in learning and using the language.

Third, there should be more efforts to support contemporary works with Sinophone influence in our mass media and pop culture, such as music and film.

Popular artiste Jay Chou’s refreshing fusion of traditional Chinese music with modern elements accompanied with lyrics related to Chinese history or folklore exemplifies how current works can be inspired by tradition, not limited by it.

Another example is renowned Singaporean artiste JJ Lin’s songs with Sinophone influences in both its lyrics and music, such as “Tales of the Red Cliff” and “Jiangnan” (River South) which have been trending among youth.

Fourth, relook how to use literature to engage youth to help them gain Chinese literacy through reading and writing. 

Currently, many literary works picked for Chinese literature studies are often traditionally acknowledged masterpieces such as the four Classic Chinese Novels including “Journey to the West” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”. 

Yet, introducing Singaporean youths to contemporary Chinese literature in vogue, like modern novels or dramas could pique their interests in learning Chinese more.

Indeed, many online novels have even been adapted into television dramas. These include Scarlet Heart and Empresses in the Palace, which have begun to generate interest and followings among some Singaporean youth.

Our youth can even learn Mandarin proverbs and wise sayings from these online novels and screenplays, like how they may analyse beautiful English quotes from contemporary play The Glass Menagerie written by American playwright Tennessee Williams or English descriptive writing techniques from novel Atonement by English author Ian McEwan.

Proposing such innovative methods for building bilingual competencies does not suggest that the past practices are completely irrelevant and should be cast away. They are not mutually exclusive.

However, we need to continuously tailor our educational initiatives according to each generation’s needs.

Done right, these new programmes could be gateways for Singaporean youths to understand the more traditional aspects of Chinese language and culture. They would need to be updated as youth’s needs and tastes change over time.

For now, we urge Singaporeans to embrace innovative methods for an optimal environment in laying strong foundations for Chinese proficiency, rather than to repeat antiquated approaches which may no longer be effective. 


Alvona Loh Zi Hui, 26, is a Singaporean doctor. She is vice-president of Business China Youth Chapter, and a Young Bilingual Professional selected by Business China and Promote Mandarin Council in 2019. Li Muhan, 23, is currently serving National Service. He is a co-founder of HiGoWhere Singapore, a service ecommerce startup, and a member of the Business China Youth Chapter.