During my internship, I noticed a girl who was not proficient in the Chinese language but was incredibly attentive in the Secondary 3 class I was teaching. Whenever I taught Chinese composition writing, she would copy down all the model sentences incessantly. Afterwards, she would annotate every single new Chinese vocabulary in English. Teachers all love hardworking students, do they not? Just then, I felt that I should be ashamed of myself if I don’t manage to teach her well.
Yet, her answer to a survey questionnaire shocked me – she did not like the Chinese language at all. To her, it was useless. I went to her after class the next day, hoping to talk about her response. She was practising for tingxie (Chinese spelling) with her classmates then. Once again, she admitted that she disliked the language and felt that it was difficult.
Nonetheless, she was indeed studious. She diligently practised writing the new Chinese characters that would be tested for spelling, again and again. She said that even if she had memorised the words by heart, she would still forget them shortly after the tingxie test. “Is Chinese really useful?” She asked me in all sincerity.
I was at a loss for words. The Chinese language is definitely of use if one wishes to connect with the Chinese-speaking world or work with China, a rising superpower, then the Chinese language will definitely be of use. There was a series of advertisements a few years back, in which Caucasian cast members could pronounce Chinese words more clearly than I can. At the end of the advertisements, the slogan “华文谁怕谁（I don’t fear you, Chinese!)” was flashed on the screen. These advertisements were, in fact, screened as part of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. How could one say that the Chinese language is impractical when even the Caucasians were speaking it now? But the word “fear” stood out too much to be ignored. Had I shown those advertisements to my students, I was afraid that this would have ended tragically.
Perhaps I should have reiterated that the Chinese ought to learn to speak Mandarin? I was reminded of another incident with another class, which I had gone to relief-teach. Their learning attitudes then were atrocious.
I asked one of the girls, “Don’t you want to properly grasp the Chinese language?”
She replied with a question, “Why should I? I’m not even Chinese.” It turned out that she was from another race, and I was left speechless.
What exactly is the point of learning languages? What’s wrong with not learning your mother tongue? “Don’t you find it hard to study Chinese?” Another teacher intern asked me. Even though she was born in China, she was raised in Singapore and had wholly embraced the Singaporean way of life. I could not have told her apart from any other Singaporeans. “It is easier to form words in English. And even if there is a word you don’t understand, you can still somewhat spell it. But for Chinese, you have to get all the strokes correct in order to form a character. When picking up a language, isn’t it most important that words are easy to form? ”
“Easy”– a key word that is ever so closely linked to the concept of practicality.
Is the Chinese language challenging to pick up? According to the experiences of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, it is a language that requires hard work. The speech he made during his book launch had a lasting impression on me.
He expressed, “It would be tough to survive in Singapore if one does not know how to speak English; it will be your lifelong regret if you do not know how to speak Mandarin. We should learn to speak Mandarin not because of the rise of China’s economy, but to understand our cultural roots.” One would have mistaken these stirring words as those that would have been spoken by Chinese education advocates. He might have indeed felt remorseful. However, Singapore’s education policies for the Chinese language currently focus mainly on the spoken tongue, not so much on reading and writing. While Chinese lessons are undoubtedly much easier now, are we able we preserve our cultural roots this way?
Then again, which is more important: to understand one’s cultural heritage, or to be more practical?
The little girl told me, “What’s the problem? My friends and I speak in English in school all the time.” She sounded almost identical to those“successful” figures who disdainfully brag, “I only speak English. Even so, I can still afford to live in a big house and drive a big car.”
Ardent supporters of the English language policies would confidently claim, “Singapore would not have been able to reach where it is today if English had not been the main language.”
We can’t possibly turn back time. If Chinese were to be Singapore’s main language from the very start, what would Singapore be like now? For a start, Singlish– something that we now take much pride in– probably would not have existed. Also, how would the different ethnic groups communicate with one another? Would our economy still prosper as it does now? The essentiality of English in modern Singapore is not one to be arbitrarily questioned. It would be difficult for Mandarin Chinese to go head to head with the English language taking into consideration pragmatism and the assumption that one can only master one language. it may even be accused of being an impediment that burdens Singapore and hinders her from moving forward. Is Chinese that important? My English-educated friends barely spoke Chinese in their lives. Yet, they are still doing well. It is not fair to assume that they are failing at life, is it?
If Mandarin is so unpopular and unwelcomed, even less needs to be said about dialects. Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign has been implemented for 30 years and seemed to have made remarkable results. Youths in Singapore hardly know any dialects now. Has the sacrifice of dialects increased the Chinese proficiency of Singaporean youths? Definitely not. In fact, quite the opposite. I often have to use English to aid in my teaching, but I could never use Hokkien or Cantonese to explain certain words. What should I tell the students? Should I say that dialects are not our mother tongues? Or that dialects play no significance in preserving our cultural roots??
As a mere relief teacher, I stopped myself from elaborating further into ethnic pride or languages being the medium in preserving cultural identity. Instead, I only explained the formation of the Chinese characters briefly, using the few words that I had tested them to write in the tingxie. No one will ever ask if a piece of art is “useful” when created, would they? Even if she has yet to recognise the beauty of Chinese characters, at least it would be less tedious for her to prepare for tingxie.
“That is actually quite interesting,” she said as I was about to leave. And those genuine words were enough to soothe my heart.
Nevertheless, there are some things which I still cannot get over. If the purpose of studying is to find out more about the world, we should start by understanding ourselves better. It is always a shame when people wish to know more about themselves but do not know much about their own culture or mother tongue. And what is even more of a pity is when any race completely loses grasp of languages that were once theirs, never knowing what they had lost.
Afterword: I wrote this article to pen down my thoughts in July 2012, after a 4-week internship at a neighbourhood secondary school in Singapore.
Translated by Yew Rui En Rachel
所以那天我这小小的代课老师没和那学生说什么民族大义，也没谈语言如何承载文化，我只就她听写的那几个词讲了些汉字的造字法。就像画一幅画时不会问“这幅画有用吗？”一样那么纯粹。如果她还无法体会到文字的优美，至少听写也不必学得那么辛苦吧。临别时她诚恳地说：“That is actually quite interesting.”足慰我心矣。
(Eunoia Junior College MTL Department)