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 +

Friday, November 06, 2009

Lee Kuan Yew and Language Education in Singapore.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, was quoted, recently, in Petir, the People's Action Party magazine, as saying: "Initially, I believed that intelligence was equated to language ability. Later, I found that they are two different attributes - IQ and a facility for languages. My daughter, a neurologist, confirmed this,". Commentary in the articles that relate to this, state that this realization took 30 years. In the meantime, difficult education policies on bilingualism were implemented - ones that ignored the difficulty of acquiring a second language, for many students.

Now, it seems to me, that the implications of this realization have not been entirely examined. PSLE, for instance, requires, if I am not mistaken, examination in English and "Mother Tongue"...that is, a second language, determined by the race of the examinee. It has always seemed suspect to me, to state that because someone is of a particular race, that they must also be of a particular language. My children, for instance are, yes, half-Malay...but they have far less than half the normal opportunity to learn Malay. You see, I don't speak Malay, so most of the conversation in our household is, necessarily in English. Thus, it is a nonsense to have a policy which requires my children to be Malay speakers (because they have a Malay mother), when they don't really come from a Malay speaking household. There are many families like this, families which have a particular racial background but do NOT have the corresponding language background. Yet, at PSLE, all families must submit to the demand for examination in English and Mother Tongue. As we can see from MM Lee's own admission, this makes no sense at all, with regards to the intended aim of selecting the most able students. Ability in languages is not a catch-all for general mental ability: it is a specific capability. Leonardo da Vinci, the famously polymathic genius, was not so strong in languages: perhaps in Singapore he would have been relegated to poorer schools because of it. How ridiculous is that?

So, let us heed MM Lee's recent acquisition of wisdom regarding languages and IQ. Let us have a PSLE system which does NOT require multiple languages for examination. Perhaps the student can nominate which language exam they wish to take - and take only one. Either that, or they could take both - and ONLY the highest one should count towards the determination of their standing in the PSLE.

The real question we have to answer regarding the PSLE is: what is it for? Is it to determine the relative capability of students, in terms of actual intelligence? If so, drop the multiple language requirement because different students have different opportunities to learn languages, so what is being compared is not their intellects, but their environments. If, however, Singapore just wants a system to determine who is the best fit to a multilingual environment, then carry on the present system unchanged. It doesn't find the smartest just finds those best fitted to a multilingual environment. They are not necessarily the same thing. Just ask Leonardo da Vinci, the famous non-linguist. (By the way, I think Leonardo would have been horrified by Singapore's education system...)

(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 @ 2:25 PM 


Blogger Christine said...

Einstein didn't do well in French, and yet he is an archeytype of genius.
I agree, let them choose which language they want to test in. People shouldn't be judged on their racial background.
I have known many people who were "supposed" to know a certain language, but didn't.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Christine. Some historical geniuses have been adept at languages...indeed, for some of them, this WAS their area of genius...but for many, their gift was in conceptual areas, not in linguistic ones. For these people, one quite often finds that they are either not particularly interested in languages, or not given to acquiring them. Being bilingual, or multilingual should not be a basic requirement for access to the best schooling in any nation. It is quite silly, since it does not connote the highest level of intelligence, is indicative of a particular aptitude that may be present, in the absence of any other gift at all.

Thanks for your comment.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though i suffered under this policy of 2 languages (i took a 3rd at MOELC for 2 years, before having to drop it because i exceeded the normal max of 9 subjects for O levels) during my years in the system, i now regret that i did not focus more on my mother tongue.

In the most condensed form, it is a desire to reconnect with my roots that it spurring me on attempting to improve my MT language.

In fact, i am somewhat ashamed to be only able to communicate effectively in english .

A few weeks ago, i read the article in the ST. The journalist was writing about how he disliked learning dialect, english, malay and mandarin when he was young. However, he now realises how it was actually a blessing- for he can communicate effectively with the older generation and his malaysian friends in their respective tongues.

I'm not sure if a westerner like yourself can understand this feeling though, but i hope that you see the value in it or at the very least, respect the views of the many that silently regret it (like myself). Sometimes when we are young, we make stupid choices or do stupid things. That is why we need more insightful people to lead us, and to correct us.

The reason for the need to test this subject is simple. By making it non-examinable, you will definitely see people giving up on it. This totally defeats the purpose of the MT language. This is true, simply because of the asian emphasis on exam results.

Also, not doing well in your MT does not prevent one from going to a good school or getting a good education.
Case in point- Offhand, i can recall this friend who didnt do well in his MT but is now sponsored by MIT for his studies.
He did exceptionally well in the other subjects, with MT as his only blemish.
On the other hand, my relative, who did well in MT, but poor in maths, had to appeal to get into a top school through her CCA.

On a separate note regarding this policy. I believe that LKY made a mistake years ago in making mandarin the chinese dialect to learn. He should have allowed the other dialects to flourish for the chinese here are overwhelming from the southern provinces, rather than the north. It is sad then that the dialects will die off soon, and with it, part of the chinese roots.

9:02 AM  
Blogger ozob said...

And thus, it might be a sound decision to send your kids to a country which better appreciates their cognitive ability.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. examinable.

You make a good point about local culture. I had not considered that people would not study, what is not examined. Here, as foreign readers may not know, the emphasis is on exams, not knowledge, skill or understanding for its own sake. No exam would mean no study.

Thanks for your point.

1:57 PM  
Blogger ***Anomaly1765 said...

In the U.S., teachers don't know what to do with exceptional kids just like in Singapore. What I hate is that some geniuses have to stay in hiding and have to deal with "being normal." It's hard to imagine that, but there are some parents who would euthanize their child if they were a genius. (or put them in an orphanage.) And yes, in the U.S., you have to take a foreign language in high school AND college in order to graduate from both.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Anomaly for your observations.

I rather think it is mad that a parent would react in such a way to a genius child: do you have any actual stories, or examples of this?

Re. language requirement...yes, they do...but I think it rather ignores the fact that different people have different interests and abilities. A system that allowed for differences would be a better one.

1:26 AM  

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