The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The true nature of Singapore's bilingualism.

To truly see what a country is, you have to ask outsiders how they see it. Those who have been brought up in a country cannot truly see what it is they live in. So, how do overseas people see Singapore's self-professed bilingualism?

Well, not perhaps in the way you might expect. Today, I had a conversation with an expat teacher about this. He was telling me how his student, a native of Mainland China, had complained to him about the language use of Singaporeans. This student was very puzzled. He said: "Before I came to Singapore, I thought my English was good - but when I tried to speak to Singaporeans in English, I couldn't understand their replies. Then I thought I should speak to them in Chinese, so I did so. But then, I couldn't understand their replies in "Chinese", either."

I was not surprised to hear this. Yet, it does speak of the true nature of the linguistic situation in Singapore. The Singaporean system has failed to produce citizens able to converse, to an international standard, in ANY language. A Chinese boy who had learnt Standard English in China, was unable to understand Singlish, at all. He had also, obviously, acquired Standard Mandarin - but couldn't understand Singaporean efforts at that, either. In fact, he described the Singaporean Chinese as "really bad".

To me, it seems strange that Singapore tells itself that it is a bilingual nation - and has an education system that ostensibly instils bilingualism - when people from overseas don't even see it as being capable in any language, at all. There is something wrong, therefore. Would it not be better to aim to be competent in ONE language, than incompetent in TWO? I think competent monolingualism is far superior to incompetent bilingualism. If, for instance, Singaporeans were masters of English, or masters of Chinese, they would, at least, be on a par with the British/Americans/Canadians etc. or the Mainland Chinese, on their own territory. As it is, the language that most - and I say most, because there will be exceptions - Singaporeans speak is unrecognizable by native speakers of the languages that Singaporeans are told that they are able to speak.

A clear policy on language learning is necessary. One policy that would improve matters greatly would be if ONLY NATIVE TEACHERS of languages were allowed to teach in Singaporean schools. This means that ONLY British (or other native speaker) teachers should be allowed to teach English - and ONLY Mainland Chinese teachers should be allowed to teach Chinese - and only Indian natives should be allowed to teach Tamil - and so on. In this manner, the students would be assured of the opportunity to learn a language to a high standard instead of being cheated of the opportunity, by teachers who are essentially ignorant of what correct language usage is.

I don't imagine that this policy will ever be enacted (perhaps because Singapore is already "No. 1" in everything and does not need to improve etc. etc...), but I can at least suggest that it is done, to the betterment of the future of Singapore.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:08 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

At the risk of sounding terribly thick-skinned, I must say that I am glad that I am able to use English and Mandarin reasonably well both in speech and in writing, and can be considered to fall into the "effectively bilingual" category... Being fluent in these two vastly different languages is something I really take pride in. I think that learning languages is very rewarding and fulfilling. There are a lot of cultural elements embedded in languages and it is always interesting to compare differences between languages to see how they initially responded to the diverse surroundings in which they first came into existence, how they have evolved since then, etc. There is also much beauty to be discovered in each and every language. Unfortunately most of the local students I've come across don't derive much joy through attending language classes.

In university I've completed the beginner's course in German. Most of my classmates are hardly fluent in English and/or their native tongues. It seems puzzling that they want to learn German (especially when Singapore isn't a German-speaking country and thus it is really difficult to learn German here) when they can't even learn English and their native tongues well. I'm afraid they need to get their priorites right - and so does the government. As you said, competence in one language is certainly better than incompetence in two.

11:07 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your true bilingualism is a rarity here, in Singapore, Miao (as you know yourself by everyday observation)...good luck on becoming one of Singapore's even rarer TRILINGUALs.

I think the reason your fellow students feel equipped to tackle a third language is that they DON'T REALISE they failed to acquire the first two, competently. They are, in effect, operating under a linguistic delusion. I hope they realize it soon enough and focus on polishing the first two languages to a level at which they may be internationally comprehensible.

Best wishes

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Would it not be better to aim to be competent in ONE language, than incompetent in TWO?"

- dear valentine, is this perhaps your way of excusing the british for their very poor or non-existent french?

but more seriously, think of this incompetence (i'll allow your argument to make mine) as a necessary evil, as a political exigency.

"One policy that would improve matters greatly would be if ONLY NATIVE TEACHERS of languages were allowed to teach in Singaporean schools."

- i'll make another political point here: no thank you, the empire is long gone.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Miao said...


Thanks for your encouragement, but I've decided not to continue learning German in Singapore... Despite being one of the best students in my German class, I still cannot speak German decently or compose sentences in German intuitively. I have a Chinese friend who's doing his Master's degree in Germany, and according to him, if I enrol directly in a language school in Germany, it is possible to master it within 9 months. (I also have a friend who went to Korea to learn the Korean language, and after attending classes for only 1 year, she's now good enough to get into Korean universities.) Tentatively my plans are to work for some time after graduation, save up enough money, and hopefully travel to Germany one day to learn German there. This dream may take five, ten, or even more years to realise, but I believe it's never too late to learn... (Unless I unexpectedly die early.)

Are you fluent in Greek and Russian too? That's my inference after seeing "гений ребенок", "μεγαλοφυία θαύμα" and "παιδιών". Greek and Russian are very difficult languages and it is amazing that you understand them.

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that a Chinese national having trouble conversing in Mandarin in Spore. There is difference in accent but not to the extent of being almost unintelligible. My relatives from China had no problems speaking Mandarin in Malaysia and its hardly any different in Singapore. I think you are beating your Singlish hobby horse again.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anonymous at 8.48...

You are basically calling me a liar. I am not going to call you anything in return - although you deserve it.

However, I am going to say this: what I have written is a word for word recounting of what a Chinese national actually said about Singaporean Chinese. If you don't believe it you are IN DENIAL, about Singaporean language skills.

The expat teacher who told me this story is a very serious man in his late sixties who has spent his life working as a journalist, in the Western tradition of reporting things as they are. I am fully confident that what he says is true. I have known him for some time and never known him to lie.

Frankly, I am disgusted that you would doubt what I have written. The post is not about just about Singlish - it extends it into Chinese, which I cannot comment on myself because I don't speak it. However, EVERY CHINESE STUDENT I HAVE TAUGHT SAYS THAT SINGAPOREAN CHINESE IS RUBBISH (or words to that effect).

IF every PRC student I have taught says so, who is right: you - a Singaporean in denial - or 1.4 billion people who actually speak the language.

Grow up and open your eyes and ears to the nature of your own countrymen's linguistic situation.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Miao,

No I don't speak Russian or Greek fluently. In my time, I have acquired a few words of many languages, that is all.

It looks like you are planning an interesting life for yourself. Good luck with it. I think a broad life is so much more rewarding than a static, narrow one.

Best wishes

10:59 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Dear Anonymous re. the Empire,

My call for native teachers has nothing to do with Empire. It has everything to do with providing good examples for children to learn from. I am suggesting that natives of ALL languages taught in Singapore be the teachers - not just Britain. So, it is not a Colonial suggestion, but one that calls for Indians, Chinese, Malays, Brits and so on to be here to teach. That is all. It would be great for everyone since then the templates the students hear will be true to the original languages and not distorted by local decline in language use (and all languages here exhibit a great decline from what I hear from natives of those languages).

As for the British - they tend to be lazy with languages because the rest of the world is busy learning how to talk to them. They just have to speak English and someone, everywhere, will understand them.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe Valentine talkes to a subset of Singaporeans and subset of Chinese PRC and Foreigners and asked for their views. There are many different 'types' of Singaporeans with different levels of proficiencies and yes, Valentine is correct and is not lying. But there are many others who are bilingual which makes us Singaporeans proud. (Probably not in the elitist school - that's all :)

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

G'day Mr Valentine

A certain researcher uncovered a great secret a few years ago. The Japanese speaks ... Japanese. At the rate SG is taking in PRCs and anglo-saxons(Brits\Aussie\Yankees) ... no worries mate.

Singaporeans take up German ... because Swiss\German banks pay well? and I believe Germans also cringe at *Swiss* German. Come to think of it, Beijing Chinese and Shanghai Chinese and somewhat different. Nvm the dialects.

And in the BPL, I can understand Arse Wanker and his merry band of Frenchies perfectly. Sadly, Sir Alex and Wayne Rooney (your fellow Brits)... and I am a Man U fan.

so you 'reckon cockney is superior to Scouse(bin dippers)?


12:07 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your supportive comment. I do, indeed, get to meet a lot of PRCs and foreigners and have the opportunity to hear their views on such matters (and many others).

Perhaps I have been misunderstood. I would like to see EITHER a Singaoporean nation of people competent in one language - or better still competent in two languages. What I find uncomfortable to witness, however, is that a majority of Singaporeans are competent in neither of their languages. I hope to see that corrected - it would be good for Singapore.


12:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi NoName,

Yes, Cockney is much more intelligible than Scouse. When in England, however, most of the people I knew spoke Received Pronounciation and Standard English - a manner of speaking which equipped them to be understood anywhere. I think it is important for the future of Singapore that Singaporeans speak versions of their languages which are international and not just local. It makes a big difference to their ability to capitalize on global opportunities.

Best wishes

12:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

How languages are viewed in the education system here in Singapore is a by-product of the link between education and economic viability. If perfecting Standard English proficiency alone can contribute substantially to Singapore's GDP or competitive edge in the region, you can bet with your bottom dollar that the Government will spare no effort in ensuring that will happen. The same applies to the Chinese language.

The observations you made are indicative of how the goal is for the populace to attain a certain level of proficiency and not to master the language. Your lament is understandable but I believe is not something that the powers-that-be see as crucial for Singapore's economic survival.


12:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, IrCTP for your considered response.

You are right, I think, in your appraisal of the Government's stance on language. However, I don't think that THEY are right about their stance.

Not a few Singaporean businessmen find it difficult to make themselves understood overseas. What impact do you think this has on their business prospects?

A native's natural response to someone who cannot speak English/Chinese/Whatever properly is to doubt their ability in general. This is easy to understand because in their own countries only people of compromised mental faculties are unable to speak the language well. So, they associate the incompetence in language which they observe with a more general incompetence. This is not a good view for Singapore to cultivate of itself. It lowers the chances that business will come here - and raises the chances that it will go elsewhere where the communication is more complete.

Then again, there is more to life than economic survival. Perhaps that is why so many Singaporeans are abandoning Singapore - because in Singapore the only thing that is thought worth cultivating is the economy - every other aspect of a good life ignored. Perhaps if the powers-that-be had a broader view of what a successful life was, they would have a more successful nation, too.

Best wishes,

1:04 PM  
Blogger WhiteDuskRed said...

Actually sometimes you got to ask yourself which part of China did the Chinese national come from. I have colleagues in Shenzhen complaining to me that they cannot understand the mandarin of a guy from Hunan. And frankly speaking, I can hardly apprehand what the 2 of them are saying most of the time because those working in Shenzhen speaks mandarin with a cantonese accent.

Proud to say this, most Singaporeans can walk in and out of China/Malaysia/India (depending on the race/subject taken in school) without much difficulty.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi WhiteDuskRed,

I don't know where he was from...I will try to find out.



1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Valentine,

In the name of profits and the bottom line, businesses eager to extend their reach into this region will have no choice but to be more forgiving when it comes to language proficiency, especially English – the lingua franca of the world – and in future, Chinese.

The level of proficiency in English among Singaporeans, I dare say, may be marginally higher than that of our neighbours and for now, China. Yes, there may be mistakes in pronunciation, spelling and to a greater extent – grammar – but generally, it is not too difficult for Singaporeans to express themselves and communicate in English. Now, if you compare that with the people in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and to a certain extent, Malaysia, we are comparable if not slightly better than the citizenry there in making ourselves understood in English.

This is the competitive edge that the powers-that-be banked on when they emphasised the strategic importance of getting a basic grasp of English proficiency by putting it as the official first language here (if I am not mistaken).

Of course, they could have pushed it further by relegating the Mother Tongue in the local education system to a lower priority and like you said, place greater emphasis in getting the populace to master English instead. However, Lee Kuan Yew, having been spot on in predicting the rise of China as an economic power back in the 1970s, has put the Education Ministry through the paces in implementing the Chinese as a Second Language policy.

If it is hard enough to master English (itself considered a “bastard” language which has its roots in Latin, French and German), generations of post-Independence Singaporeans have to contend with learning Chinese (which is considered one of the most difficult languages to master in the world) during the ten years they’ll spend in schools. To make things even harder, Mandarin – a northern Chinese dialect – is not even the Mother Tongue of many Singaporeans, who are mostly of southern Chinese descent.

Add to the equation, the “cookie-cutter”-esque method of churning out teachers from the NIE. And add to the mix, Singapore’s British colonial roots and the influx of American media to the culture here since the 1960s, resulting in, for example, the interchangeable use of “z” and “s” for some verbs as well as the confusion between “parking lot” and “parking space”.

Can anyone seriously blame most Singaporeans for being a jack of two languages and a master of none? Can the brightest and most gifted of minds in the top echelons of Singapore’s education ministry solve this problem?

Unless we import British (or American) teachers who are masters of the English language en masse (and do the same for Chinese), we’ll have to make do with marginal bilingualism that will keep our heads above the waters for the time being.

(And if Singaporeans continue to be ignorant of how the Chinese nationals have started to attend English classes in droves, it won’t be long before we drown.)



3:16 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, IrCTP, there has been a great upsurge in Chinese students of English in the early years of the New Millenium. I have often faced whole classes filled with nothing but PRC students. (Though in the past year or two classes are becoming more mixed as Vietnamese get in on the act).

Singapore may presently have a relative edge, competitively speaking, even if they have an absolute deficit (which they most certainly do, in all languages). However, that edge is, as you note, being eroded by the strenuous efforts of larger competing nations such as the PRC. It may only be a few years before that edge has gone.

So, perhaps Singapore should start importing native teachers from across the world, to retain the edge of which it is so proud.

Best wishes.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous KS said...

My question is: will having native speaking teachers actually help? There are many expat families living in Singapore who have chosen to put their own children into Singaporean schools. Kids spend most of their day hearing Singapore-style English. So, "native" British, American, Australian, etc kids still come home speaking like the locals.

If both parents speak proper English at home, yet their kids come back with the local dialect, doesn't that prove that having native English speakers at teachers won't change a thing?

Think of all of those 2nd generation British kids who speak with marbles in their mouth at school and with friends, then speak Indian or Pakistani English with their own families.

As far as English goes, isn't it always difficult for a person from one country to pick up nuances in the language from another country? People in the Deep South of the US won't understand a Mancunian and vice versa. Even in large countries such as the US, the average Joe doesn't speak a "standard" form of English.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You have raised a difficult matter KS. The fact is children learn language from THEIR PEERS NOT PARENTS. Thus, to change language usage in a country you have to change it in a child's peers as well: this means altering the children's environment in major ways so that all start speaking differently. Changing the teachers would be a good start...but it only works if, in turn, all the children begin to change.

It isn't easy...but it would be good to try.

Yes, English is spoken differently in various parts of the world - but only those who speak a standard version have access to the world. Thus, a standard version is the one that should be taught since it opens up the world to all those who speak it.

Best wishes,

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just curious, what is your (linguistic) background aside from having learned a few languages and remembering only a few words each?

i am an applied linguist, and polyglot to some extent, and would be happy to take you on in some of the linguistic views you've promulgated here.


4:43 PM  
Anonymous snow white said...

Perhaps the problem of miscommunication was due to the collloquial terms we often use in our conversations. Something like "hoover" vs "vacuum cleaner"? My friends have difficulty understanding Chinese waitstaff too because something as simple as potatoes can have different names in Mainland China and in Singapore.

My classmates from China were truly impressed with both my English & Chinese, but I must admit that it is not easy to always converse in proper, standard English or Chinese, especially when most of the people you converse with do not speak the same way as you do.

I totally agree with having only native language teachers in schools. I know a young girl who comes from a Chinese-speaking family but is able to converse in very good English because her teacher is an English, and hope my future kids can receive quality language lessons in their younger years, which are most crucial for language foundation. That said, I doubt that is ever gonna happen in the usual Singaporean schools.

Btw I read almost all the posts on your blog tonight. Your sons are amazing and it's been a pleasure reading your blog.


3:37 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, Snow White, for your kind comment. I am glad you enjoy the blog.

9:40 AM  

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