In the past decade, there has been a steady rise in the number of international schools offering a bilingual programme in Mandarin (Putonghua), which is the most popular Chinese dialect.
Schools offer a bilingual pathway from a very young age, starting with the early years, and this often continues onto secondary and sixth form where students can pursue Mandarin as a subject at IGCSE, in the IB Diploma Programme (and as a Bilingual Diploma) and at A Level.
To be truly bilingual, these schools are taking an immersive approach and using both Chinese and English as the languages of instruction. These programmes focus on helping your child achieve native-level fluency in both English and Mandarin, something that is assessed through an international standardized test of Chinese language proficiency, the Youth Chinese Test (YCT). This is very different to teaching a second language one or two lessons a week.
Bilingual programmes are now available in over 10 international schools offering different curricula (from the UK to US), the affordable through to the elite, and the most well-established schools through to the new kids on the block.
In short, parents have a wider choice than ever before. Bilingual programmes are no longer for the select few.
What is driving the popularity of bilingual programmes in international schools in Singapore, and why is Mandarin seen as the language of the future?
WhichSchoolAdvisor speaks to two international schools – EtonHouse, which was one of the first to launch a bilingual programme over 12 years ago, and SJI International, which has just announced the launch of its bilingual programme in 2024.
There are many practical and compelling reasons to study Mandarin, and the growth in bilingual programmes in Singapore highlights the growing importance of Mandarin as a language on a global scale.
Families recognise that Singapore, which has a population of over three million ethnic Chinese, offers a natural environment for their children to learn Mandarin; unlike in their home country perhaps, there is every opportunity to use the language in their daily lives.
Bilingual education has always been a key focus and strength of EtonHouse, a well-established group of schools with campuses including Broadrick, Orchard and Sentosa. It has been teaching cohorts of fluent bilingual speakers, including many non-native Mandarin speakers, since its inception– making it one of the most well-established bilingual programmes in Singapore.
Peter Dart, Vice Principal and PYP Coordinator at Etonhouse (Broadrick) says:
“We are seeing a growth in international families and third culture children. The need to stay connected to your roots in the face of increased globalisation coupled with the rise of China as a global economic powerhouse has increased the demand for individuals who can communicate effectively in both English and Mandarin Chinese.
"These have created a natural movement towards learning Mandarin as a second language to give children better career prospects, cultural connections, and communication skills in a globalised world.
“Even non-Mandarin-speaking families are opting for a bilingual and multilingual foundation for their children as they fully appreciate what an excellent skill this would equip their children with as they face an increasingly competitive and globalised world.”
SJI International is launching a bilingual programme for its Elementary School students aged four to 12 years (Prep 1 to Grade 6) in January 2024.
Gary Guo, Vice-Principal (Bilingual Programme) at SJI International’s Elementary School says that Singapore’s multicultural and multilingual society is driving the growth of the English-Chinese bilingual concept in international schools.
Mr Guo says:
“Singapore schools provide English-Chinese bilingual education with varying models and expectations tailored to the school curriculum and student demographics. An increasing number of parents recognise the significance of being authentically bilingual for their children's future success, acknowledging that fluency in English and Chinese equips them with a competitive edge.
“By offering a bilingual education, international schools in Singapore aim to cater to the diverse student population, which includes both local Singaporeans and expats.
"Secondly, the bilingual approach aligns with Singapore's emphasis on nurturing global citizens who possess strong language skills and cultural competency. As Chinese is one of the world's most widely spoken languages, fluency in English and Chinese equips students with a valuable asset for future opportunities in both local and international contexts.
"Lastly, the English-Chinese bilingual concept reflects Singapore's strategic positioning as a gateway between the East and West, fostering cross-cultural understanding and facilitating communication between different cultures and communities.”
Why is learning Chinese important for today's students?
Mr Guo explains why knowing Chinese, the most widely spoken language on earth, can give students an extra edge in the increasingly global economy.
“In the current era of globalisation, Chinese speakers constitute one of the largest global demographic, and numerous opportunities require proficiency in the Chinese language or cultural comprehension.
“Furthermore, cultivating a multilateral mindset entails more than simply acquiring alternative vocabulary for the same concepts; it includes embracing an entirely new perspective on how we perceive and approach the world. As Flora Lewis aptly stated: ‘Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things but learning another way to think about things’.”
A pioneer in bilingual education, EtonHouse International School Broadrick was the first international school in Singapore to provide a bilingual programme aligned to the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP) in 2011.
The success of its Bilingual Immersion Programme is reflected in past results of the Youth Chinese Test (YCT), where Bilingual students have a 100% pass rate. With Year 5 and 6 students scoring an average of 85% in their Level 4 YCT testing results, it’s testament to the programme’s success in helping students become effectively bilingual at the end of their primary years.
While business leaders and international organisations are looking for people who can speak the language and operate successfully in a Chinese cultural context, the benefits extend far beyond employment opportunities. Learning Chinese also has cognitive benefits, the tonal associations of Chinese can enhance musical ability, and it raises students’ awareness of Chinese history and culture.
Mr Peter Dart adds:
“Singapore has a large ethnic Chinese population and a strong connection to the Chinese language and culture. When learning the language and understanding Chinese culture, we promote connection and understanding between expatriates, Singaporeans and Chinese families.
“Also, from an education and child development perspective, there are consistent studies showing the benefit of multilingualism in a developing child. It helps strengthen neural connections, cognitive abilities and builds creativity and flexibility in learners.”
The future of Mandarin Chinese in schools
The launch of new bilingual programmes in Singapore’s international schools, and the growing demand of places on well-established bilingual programmes highlight the growing importance of Chinese as a language on a global scale. And, as Chinese proficiency becomes increasingly valuable in the job market, we can expect more students to take Chinese exams in the future.
Mandarin Chinese is more challenging than other traditional languages studied at school. Its complicated script using over 60,000 characters, different grammar structure, and vast vocabulary, requires a significant amount of time and effort from students. Mandarin is also a tonal language, meaning that the pitch of a word can change its meaning, which can be difficult for learners to grasp.
However, with the right amount of dedication, investment, resources, and teaching methods, students do have the opportunity to master Mandarin in Singapore – and learn a language of the future.