“I nearly got full marks for my geography test. I scored only 18 out of 20. I couldn’t answer two questions which were not inside my textbook!” my 13 year-old son blurt out.
“You seem very unhappy over your result. You really wanted to score perfect?,” I asked him.
“Of course lah. My favorite subject is geography. I love the subject. I spent lots of time studying it. It’s just not fair that questions did not come from the text book. I am so frustrated!” my little old man continued to complain.
I was rather bemused about it. He is in secondary one with the normal stream. My son did badly in his Chinese for his PSLE. If only he had done slightly better, my brother who is a school teacher told me that my son would have been in the express stream. His Chinese “pulled” him down according to my brother. Till today, he still fails his Chinese. It is not his cup of tea.
I have spent so much time explaining to him the significance of Chinese. Why he should at least pass his basic Chinese but to no avail. I told my son that learning Chinese is not difficult. It’s all in the miind. To learn a language whether it is Chinese, Malay or Hindi, you will surely learn it’s unique culture and characteristics. No amount of translation will be able to transmit the exact nuances and peculiarities of that culture via the English language. I explained to my son that I have seen many Chinese peers totally ignorant of Chinese that resulted in the trove of invaluable treasures denied to them. The beauty and uniqueness of Chinese cannot be so easily explained to him unless he experiences it himself.
I quoted him some common Chinese idioms – those four character idioms with a story behind it to illustrate my point. Just only four Chinese characters could relate an interesting story, its meanings and breath of experience. In short, the four Chinese characters capture the spirit and gist of the entire meaning of the story or anecdote behind it.
If one day, he grows up totally ignorant of Chinese I fear he would pin the blame on me. For it was I who insisted that we communicate with him in English since birth. Chinese – Mandarin or dialects were banned at home. The reason being I wanted him to speak English without any trace of Chinese accent. I wanted my son to speak like Francis Seow or LKY not Goh CT or Lim SS! I’ve achieved that at a heavy cost.
You see learning to speak a language be it English or Mandarin must start on the day the child learns to speak his fist few words. After that window period, the opportunity to speak perfectly without any trace of dialect accent is gone. We may master the written form of the language, but we can never master the perfect pronounciation and diction. I am comparing the spoken language to the fluency of Queen’s English or the elite class of American English. Just listen to Clinton’s or Obama’s speech.
In our context, we are resigned to the fact that English will always be our master language. Mandarin is always secondary to English here. Once this fact is accepted, we must next concentrate on our master language to excel not only in the written form but also the spoken form. I believe that mastery of English in the written form is incomplete without perfection of the spoken form. But the spoken form is only possible to nurture at a tender age. When I heard Francis Seow’s rally speech, I was very impressed with his spoken English. He is one of the few Asians (Chinese) able to speak the English language to almost perfection. It’s a joy simply listening to his soft spoken yet eloquently powerful speeches he made just before he went into self-exile.
I was actually discussing about my son’s geography subject. I have digressed too far. Let’s come back to the subject agaiin. I was telling my son what if you really score perfect score not only for this exam but for all your tests and even distinction in geography? He replied that he would be very happy. It’s an achievement for him, he says.
When I ask again what sort of achievement? He was stunned for a moment. I got the best lah. I got first in class for my favourite subject. You don’t want me to score well for my geography? – he questioned me.
Before I answered his question, I asked him what did he learn in his geography class so far. He only started geography class in secondary one. There was no geography class in primary school. He told me that he learnt about rocks and their formation, types of rivers, mountains, terrain, forest whether tropical rainforest or savannah grassland, climate and weather etc. He has not gone into minerals and mining, different aspects of a country’s geography and details of climate, seasons or oceans yet.
I asked him if he studied about Singapore – our geography and it’s surroundings? My son snorted to say that everybody knows that Singapore is such a small country. What geography? Nothing much to study lah. There and then I launched into a lengthly lecture about our geopolitical position in this part of the world and our precarious survival premised on what he is saying that we got nothing in terms of resources. This is the first time he heard about the term geopolitical. He was surprised that geography could be such a wide topic and it’s intertwined with our survival and existence. They say children’s minds are like sponges. They absorb and digest fast if they are passionate about the subject with dedicated inputs from reliable sources.
I concluded by saying that he is only learning the tools of geography. There are many smart people learning “tools” throughout their whole life but they do not know how to apply them or never apply them at all. Just like some soldiers who have never been to a real war all their life. They train as a soldier their whole life only to retire without any real action.
I illustrated by citing the example of my tools in my tool box I use for DIY. If you want to learn a trade, you will first need to learn all the tools of the trade. In electrical installation, the basic tool is the test pen where it will tell you if there is current or electricity in the wiring. Next, all the pliers, cutters, screw drivers, trunkings from small to big. The types of wires from 1.5mm to maybe 6mm. Which type of wire for what purpose. The wiring for power point is different from lighting point. The color codings – red, black and green or sometimes they are brown, yellow and green instead. Industrial vs domestic fittings etc etc The list of tools could go on and on… never ending.
My son then asked me how I manage to acquire all these knowledge when I am not an electrician. It’s a matter of interest just like you also like geography. Then I told him there are people who could master all the tools. There are also people keep learning about tools and they keep learning about their uses. They only know about tools but they do not know how to use them to do the real work. One good example is hardware salesman. They sell all kinds of tools and they keep track of new tools. Just only screws, there are so many types. There are even shops specializing in selling screws only. The whole shop sells nothing but screws only.
My son was quite amazed with the things I was telling him. He exclaimed that I was a good story teller. I then asked him if he agreed with my earlier statement that there is so much more to learn. By getting a perfect score for your geography test is only a small step towards a long journey of life long learning. You just don’t stop at perfect score. You are only learning the tools that only aid in your understanding of the whole ecology of events, surroundings. Combine geography with politics becomes geopolitics which can mean our survival or oblivion. It is no more a matter of knowledge but a matter of life and death if we do not understand the serious imponderables nature has given us. Examples and scenarios in simple forms were explained and sketched to enlighten him on the vast implications.
We ended up agreeing that education is more than grades. It is about knowledge and a passion for learning to better understand the complex treacherous environment we live in. I told him that he must master the tools first before he could go on to analyse and examine further. For without those tools, no real work can be done. Every trade has its own unique sets of tools to do their work. Tradesmen, professionals and even politicians are only successful in their own respective fields if only they know how to fully utilize those tools to achieve what they want – as a means to the ends.
Hopefully, he will remember what I told him. When I was his age, my old man who is illiterate didn’t talk to me like that. If only he had, I might have been a different person.