Learning language through music


Learning language through music is both fun and engaging.

How do you keep students engaged in learning a language like Chinese? This is a common problem faced by many parents and teachers here in Singapore. I always tell parents that the fastest way to learn Chinese is to send their kids to China for a good 10 years. They will come back with better Chinese proficiency, and may even pick up a Chinese accent.

While this may be quite an extreme thing to do, I am only making a point here: Environment is a major factor when it comes to learning. There is a Chinese idiom that goes 耳濡目染, which means literally that both the “ears and eyes are influenced and engaged”. Environment has the ability to shape our learning experience. With regards to my earlier point about sending children to China, they may not be going there with a deliberate intention to learn Chinese. However, they are forced to be surrounded by a Chinese environment, to read Chinese billboards, signboards, food and instruction menus, travel directions, and listen to Chinese news once they switch on their television and radio. So here’s my question: How can their level of Chinese proficiency not improve at all? It’s almost impossible.

To put things back to reality, many kids in Singapore find it a chore to master the Chinese language, not to mention having to pore through dense paragraphs in their Chinese comprehension passages. That is why we always hear from them that they find learning language a “headache” to begin with.

For a start, many of these younger generation are brought up in English-speaking modern families, as many of their parents tend to be more English educated. Having said this, there is thus a lack of practice opportunity back at home. Even in schools, many of them tend to converse in English. The only way to tackle this, besides having to go to China, is to keep reading, speaking, listening, and writing. The more exposed one is to the Chinese medium, the better. While requiring kids to read the Chinese newspaper may seem like a paramount task, there are other means to learn. You could watch a Chinese movie for example, and learn through subtitles for understanding. Or you could listen to your favourite Mandarin pop song from Jay Chou and pay attention to the lyrics used.

Anson’s Bilingual Classroom aims to induce fun through learning the language. Elements of music, speech and drama are injected into my teaching pedagogy. With a strong passion for these fields, I seek to create constant engagement with the kids. I infuse song learning, for example, through children’s songs (儿歌) and influences like xinyao (新谣). These work particularly well with early learners of the Chinese language – both locals and foreigners alike.

My point is, language learning should be flexible. It should be “out of the box”. While many local schools require a syllabus, the only way to sustain this interest to be a lifelong one takes much more effort than memorising words off the school textbook.

And that is why I have a role to play here.



The Songs We Sang: Ruminations and After-thoughts《我们唱着的歌》观后感


谈到新谣,想必大家都会联想起梁文福、巫启贤、颜黎明等人。就在前几天,我有幸到 Golden Village 戏院观赏《我们唱着的歌》。在去看那部之前,我只是略略知道它是一部有关新谣的记录片。但是,就因为我本身热爱新谣,对新谣辉煌的历史更是十分的好奇,因此我非看不可!






Just a few nights ago, I managed to catch the docu-film “The Songs We Sang” in a Golden Village theatre. Prior to the movie, I had little knowledge of what to expect. I only knew that it is a movie about xinyao, aka Singapore folk songs. As I am myself intrigued by the xinyao music genre, I am thrilled to catch the show to satisfy my curiosity.

Although I was born in the 80’s, my memory remains more vivid throughout the 90’s. However, xinyao has since incepted in the late 70’s, thanks to the emergence of Chinese schools. Before popular songbirds like JJ Lin and Stefanie Sun became musical icons here, xinyao sprung from Chinese schools, a movement started by Chinese students in Nanyang University’s “Poetry Music Club”. What began as a get-together during recess and after-school breaks to jam and make some music with mere guitars and vocals strummed itself to popularity in the commercial market not so long after.

Having said that, it was not all smooth-sailing for xinyao. Before it became commercialised, It was met with challenges such as the evolving education landscape in Singapore; English was made the lingua franca here, a move after the British colonial rule. Many Chinese students had difficulty trying to switch to the new language, not to mention having to use it as their primary language across other subjects. Also notable in history was the merger between Nanyang University and University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1980. Before xinyao caught up with overseas music markets, the challenges it faced were unthinkable.

Still, I’m glad that we have arrived at where we are today. Thanks to local veterans like Liang Wern Fook and Eric Moo, the ripples of xinyao could be felt through later movie/drama productions such as “That Girl in Pinafore” and MediaCorp’s “Crescendo”. I am heartened to know that such productions helped to reach to the younger crowds who probably had little inkling on what the genre is about.

Xinyao is an exemplary case study of perseverance. As an educator who embraces music, I see this as a splendid match between language and music. Hereby, I hope that xinyao could reach more audiences, and that the beauty of Chinese literature could spread on for many years to come!

The Songs We Sang is now showing exclusively at selected Golden Village theatres.

B for Boy. B for Believe.

Not so many years ago, I considered myself an avid writer. Especially when you had too much time on hand. Back in those days, I wrote a lot. I scribbled, I typed and I let my imagination run free. This is one from the small collection of short stories I wrote. It is more of a children’s story. And since it’s now the Christmas season, sharing this couldn’t be more apt. Writing short stories is a good way to encourage creativity. Let me know what you think in the comments below. 🙂


Boy under barren Xmas tree. Sketch by Anson Ong.

A boy’s Christmas wish came true because of one strong word.

It was Christmas season in a small town in England. It was a season of joy and celebration. The town itself was filled with merry making and the festive mood was getting strong. The grounds of the town were already covered with heaps and layers of thick white snow while the roofs of the cottages were shimmering with milky white snow.

Dan, a homeless boy was shivering as he slept in a cold dark corner of a tunnel. Occasionally he would sneeze and cough as he tried to wrap himself warm. Dressed in a tattered and torn shirt, Dan was cold, lonely and miserable. His family was poor. His dad used to work as a carpenter while his mom sewed clothes to make a living. They led a humble yet fulfilling life. He was the only child. Back then, he would have gathered together with his parents at the small wooden table in their cottage every Christmas Day. He remembered how his mom would cook a bowl of congee for him and also give him a small cupcake as a Christmas gift. He could not be more satisfied and happy to be with his parents. However, he lost them in a war years ago and never got to see them again. He was left all alone and abandoned.

As he was dirty and rugged, the town people advised their children not to go near him. Even the children themselves teased him whenever they saw him, making his life more miserable. He survived on leftovers and those that were dumped in the bins. It was a hard life. Yet, not all people in town were bad. There were a few good souls who would offer him food every now and then. He got to know an old man, Henry, a beggar who lived beside him in the tunnel, and got acquainted to him when he first moved there. Henry looked after him like his own child and shared food with him. Dan depended on him and looked upon him as his own father.

“Son, wake up..” Henry called as he nudged him.

Dan slowly opened his eyes as puffs of vapor came out from his mouth and nose. He turned around and looked at Henry.

“It’s Christmas son, you wouldn’t want to miss this great day would ya?”

Dan smiled and slowly sat up as he stared into the sky which was already velvet dark and dotted with twinkling little stars.

“So sonny, what’s your wish for Christmas?” Henry asked as he rubbed his hands to keep himself warm.

Dan looked up into the sky again. Staring into the myriads of stars, he thought he saw his dad and mom smiling and waving at him.

“I.. I would like my dad and mom back. I miss them..” Dan spoke slowly as tears began to fill his eyes.

“Oh, silly young man, do not cry. Boys don’t cry. You are going to be a man soon.” Henry said as he took him into his own arms and wrapped them around him to keep him warm. “Very soon sonny, you will grow up.”

Back in his workplace, Mr. Santa Clause was reading through the wish list. Squinting through his thinly framed glasses, he scanned through the wishes. Jan Hermione, 11 wants a barbie doll, Kathy Woodsman, 13 wants a new ipod, John Witherspoon, 14 wants a racing toy car… As he pored through the list of wishes, he stopped at a particular one that stood out like a sore thumb. Dan Stewart, 12, wants his dad and mom back. He paused for a while, closed his eyes and flipped through his mind for the whereabouts of Dan Stewart’s parents. Shortly, he opened his eyes and smiled.

Back in town, children were singing carols, holding candles on their hands as they walked through the snow. Christmas trees were erected in almost every household and families gathered to have their Christmas feasts. Dan took a walk around the town and was cheered to see the bright decorations on the cottages. As he walked, a little girl walked towards him and handed him a lollypop. Dan smiled and said “Thanks”.

“Danny, wake up..” he heard a familiar voice.

Dan rubbed his eyes and his vision soon became clear. He could not believe his eyes. His mother was right before him, smiling at him. Her hair was combed back into a bun, neat like how she would always look. He turned his head to survey the place. It was unmistakable – he was in the old cottage he had lived.

“Mom!” He cried.

“Why boy, it’s Christmas. You wouldn’t want to miss this day would you?” His mother smiled at him again, giving him a reassuring look this time. “Come out, I have a surprise for you.” She said as she walked out of the room to the living room, her voice sounded like warm honey down a parched throat.

Puzzled, he walked out of his room and was again shocked to see his dad sitting at the wooden table waiting for him. On the table were 3 bowls of congees. Right beside his bowl, he saw a cupcake.

“Merry Christmas son.”

Tears flowed down Dan’s cheeks. He could not believe what was happening.

“Thank you Santa, thanks for making my wish come true. I do believe in miracles now.” He muttered under his breath as he took his seat.

It felt like the best Christmas in a long while.


Anson is based in Singapore and can be contacted at 97887232 or email at anzzon@gmail.com for further enquiries.


Wah biang!

Image source: http://www.smartshanghai.com

I was randomly browsing through my Facebook newsfeed the other day when I came across this article shared by Shanghaiist’s Facebook page.

“Biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang, biang…

One Sichuan professor’s method of making sure that no one is ever late to his class: Forcing tardy students to write this 58 stroke character 1,000 times.”

The word above is called “biáng”. Though I think the act of writing it 1000 times is a bit too extreme, this caught my attention because I remember seeing the word before somewhere. Either that or I vaguely remember it being the most complicated word in modern Chinese history. I did a quick search and turned out my guess was correct.

While there are various versions of the written word above, the one shown should be a 56-stroke character, based on my humble experience.

Extracted from wikipedia, with slight edits to the stroke counts:
The character is made up of  (speak; 7 strokes) in the middle flanked by  (tiny; 2×3 strokes) on both sides. Below it, (horse; 9 strokes) is similarly flanked by  (grow; 2×8 strokes). This central block itself is surrounded by  (moon; 4 strokes) to the left,  (heart; 4 strokes) below,  (knife; 2 strokes) on the right, and  (eight; 2 strokes) above. These in turn are surrounded by a second layer of characters, namely  (roof; 3 strokes) on the top and  (walk; 3 strokes) curving around the left and bottom.

Interestingly, the word, with mnemonics consisting of traditional Chinese characters has been around for centuries.

As of present, there is no clear origin of the word and there are various stories surrounding the internet. According to this website China Simplified:

There was once a young Chinese student wandering past a Shaanxi noodle shop around lunchtime. He heard people inside saying “biang! biang!” and feeling hungry entered to see for himself.

​The student watched the cook pull long strings of noodles and serve fresh bowls to satisfied customers. Excited, he asked for one. After scarfing down the bowl, he realized he had no money to pay the bill. Sensing trouble with the cook, the student thought fast.

​“What do you call your noodles?” asked the student. ​

​“Biang biang mian,” replied the cook.

​​“Do you know how to write the character biang?”

The cook scratched his head, having never thought about it. ​

​“Then I’ll teach you how and my noodles are free!” ​

Before the cook could protest, the student grabbed some paper and wrote a character so complicated that everyone in the restaurant burst into applause. Grinning at being taken, the cook tore up the student’s bill.

​The cook’s noodles soon became legendary and the word biang came to mean the sound of someone falling down and feeling surprised, just like the first time Homer Simpson bumped his head and exclaimed, “Doh!” 

In other common versions of the story, biang comes from the sound of a cook slapping noodles against a table, or the chorus of people munching the noodles. Less important than the origin of the story is what it says about the language and culture.

Culture wise, I couldn’t help but associate to our Singlish (Singaporean colloquial) context. You see, if you are in Singapore long enough, you may have heard people using these in their daily conversations. “Biáng” is usually used after “Wah” – as in Wah biáng! (It expresses astonishment and is usually applied in situations similar to “Oh my! Why like that?” You get the drift.)

When I introduced this word to a student the other day, he couldn’t resist writing it numerous times. Whatever the word may mean, one thing is for certain. I think it looks beautiful, don’t you think? With that, you may want to try writing it and show it to your friends that you have mastered possibly the most complex contemporary Chinese word!

Here’s my humble attempt. 🙂


Anson is a full-time bilingual tutor in Singapore who coaches students in both English and Chinese. For tuition enquiries, please call 97887232.