Wednesday, August 3, 2011

We are not bi-linguals, we are half-bilinguals.

One of my galfren who is living in Japan was sharing about her "horror" of having to relearn or refreshing her mandarin. She was asking if our mandarin was closer to china or Taiwan, apart from the obvious fact that the characters are different and we emulated China's system.

As the discussion progress, only then did I realise the disparity (in level and accuracy)  between the way I was taught versus the way the others were taught. I didnt know if it was due to the schools we went to, or the fact that they were born several years after me and thus the visible "lack" of standard and mastering of the language. Actually, sometimes I find it depressing when Sg retail staff asked "Where am I from?" It's like a "big thing" if I dont have Sg-accent in either tongue, I must be foreign bred. Strange.

I wont profess I am superb in my Mandarin, in fact compared to my elder brothers, mine is shamefully pathetic. Yet compared to my peers, I realise that my command of mandarin from using 成语
,谚语,诗歌朗诵 were definitely there. This, I supposed is attributed to the fact that I had went to a "Mandarin centric" primary school where the "old school" mandarin teachers had spoken IMPECCABLE mandarin. So much so that when I went to Junior college, even though I had went to a "English centric" convent school later, my command of Mandarin was still far better than those who had come from Dunman High or Chinese high which were perceived to be Mandarin oriented secondary schools. This is how 6 solid years of hardcore, accurate, stringent Mandarin lessons in primary school benefited me. (On this note: I pay great tribute to all the mighty and honorable Chinese teachers who had taught me. 恭宽信敏 is indeed a great school motto though I could have done without the cuckoo mushroom shorthair cut imposed.) Of course, all those great Mandarin story books our teachers recommended were an added bonus.  It cemented my foundation. In fact, I suddenly had a flashback where my mandarin teacher was even teaching us the "original" character of certain words on how it derived from caveman traditional font to simplified font. Perhaps that was why I am able to alternate easier between the two fonts. (of course with my ploughing through stacks of Taiwanese version of Doraemon helps too) The core language and pinyin is so drilled into our head that I am rather thankful for it now even though I didnt think much of it then. Do higher level primary school kids still read short novels by 尤今-散文 like we had back then?I seriously doubt it huh...

The sad thing is that the language was "killed off" or died a slow painful slow death under the regime of the "anti-mandarin-anti-dialect" education system where little focus was given to the language till it is too late now. Again whose fault is that? The very same man who insulted the "pedigree" of our ancestors who had migrated to Singapore but yet singlehandedly, eradicated the existence of proper use of common dialects and mandarin in Singapore. I wonder as he wrote his memoir describing that our migrant forefathers had less than desirable "educational level" as compared to those who stayed in China, did he even remember how POWERFUL the CHINESE educated people were back then, and how anxious he was about the former NTU so much then that the school had to be closed down, not exactly peacefully as described by older generations who were exstudents.. Those people, will turn in their graves hearing him insult them.

Everything that went wrong today was a result of his short-vision for the future of Singapore. I cannot grasp his ill-advised vision really. I didnt understand why he felt so compelled to de-prioritise Mandarin use in Singapore back then. (By this I meant the removal of Chinese Schools, Chinese teachings like Confucian ethics, Chinese History etc. I dont mean eradication of language in all schools. I am not highlighting the other race for as far as I know, most Malays and Indians still retain their own native tongue at home). So what if half the nation was not proficient in English but was good in Mandarin back then? Just like Hong Kong now, there are a segment of the population who can only speak Cantonese, a segment who spoke Cantonese and varied levels of English, a segment of Cantonese and Mandarin, and then the segment of linguistic genius who are equipped with tri-languages. In the end, it is a good blend where people find jobs that suit their "language skills". Their economy remains vibrant and the social integration works perfectly well all these years. There is a unity in them, a Hong Kong spirit which is so hard to pen down but you feel it in their bones. It all boils down to the identity they had form from a common Cantonese language bond. What has eluded Singapore is this same sense of identity which was there for a while in the 80s and early 90s, then in a blink gone.

The Singapore now cannot decide if it wants to be a western or eastern country. It's neither here nor there, just like our language skills. Is that why there is a huge influx of China students and migrants now? To get the drawing board back to square one so that some man can right his own mistakes and try to have "round 2" attempt of his vision with a new Chinese crop because he had realised his past idealistic experimentation had gone awry?

Anycase, another sg friend living in China posted in the facebook discussion that Mainlanders used 上午 vs to Singaporean 早上 and said it was our own version of chinese. But the truth was, we were TAUGHT to use 上午, think morning session class and afternoon session class. How do u say it in mandarin?  上午班 right? Also, I was taught to say 整个上午 instead of 整个早上 used now but what the hell, go with the (main)flow right? Then there are 用膳/用餐时间 instead of 吃饭时间。Plus I have no idea how 早上 instead of 早晨 creep into our language, except to put it to the fact that that with the widespread lack of accurate and proper teaching of Mandarin foundation, the majority of the population ended up using the wrong mandarin phrases and it became prevalent and norm, and then they blame the system for producing localised version of Singapore Chinese.

(PS: Someone commented my mandarin is shaky because China people also use 吃饭时间/早上 etc. Please note that i did not say that these phrases are not used in Mandarin speaking countries except that I was taught that there is a difference between causal speech and formal speech, and the phrases that I had mentioned above are also being used. I would be surprised if someone from china or Taiwan tells me that 用餐时间 is wrong.  As for 上午 vs 早上, its more than the A.M (period/range) vs Morning isn't it, so at times its interchangeable but at times not.  In the end, the post is not about MY mandarin, its about the state of Mandarin or English medium in our nation today. )

However to be fair, unless the syllabus has changed (which it has I believed), for once this language weakness arises more from the people than the system. However, the system also is greatly flawed. Unless the system has changed again, the tweaking to only "recognise" and converse without having to learn to memorise and write them at an early stage is a grave mistake. My Australian partner had been trying to learn Mandarin for years on and off. He just couldnt get it in his head until I forced him to memorise and write each characters starting from the basic verbs and nouns. Painful for him but it worked and he often proudly point to the subtitles to tell me what he knew. The point is getting the teaching technique right, and then motivate the kids with things that interest them in that language. Read comic books, listen to songs, watch cartoons whatever it is, exposure is the key. If parents continue not to pay equal attention to the language due to the "lower priority" and thus resulting in the lack of focus and understanding of the correct grammar and vocab uses then we will always have this current unbearable scene of "ill-equipped" Mandarin users.

While many Asian countries (used to) say Singapore has a very successful education system of the bilanguage system, I personally think its a bloody failure in some ways because while predominantly people can understand both languages, they suck at both too. A good portion of Singaporeans are not a master of either language, least of all both. They can speak well (not necessarily fluently) in a specific language but because they are a jack of all trade, its almost hard to find one who are fluent in both. Throw in fluent in dialect, is that like 1% of the population (and by that i mean the BORN AND BRED locals, not the invading locusts). Many couldnt pronounce the words correctly in English, and they couldnt even converse in Mandarin properly throughout without having to mix and jumble it up with English. We have Sg stars/ singer wannabe like Derrek from Superstar who lament about struggling in Taiwan...I wanted to ask him, what language are u actually proficient in and you speak funny?  So that is precisely what I call a Failure. Where people think they are good enough in both but really, they are neither fluent nor reasonably good in both. Singaporeans are just passably good in both. One will be lucky to find a local school sg kid actually being fluent in one Language, with a wide range of vocab and correct pronunciation. Of course there are always exceptions, there will always be kids who are very good, but like i said, it is not a high percentage judging by what I hear around me.

I have no idea how the education landscape will change. However, I really dont quite get why they are importing all the Mandarin speaking China teachers, and yet they do NOT import native English speakers from UK (since we are on a UK syllabus and I suppose American teachers are not ideal with the different spelling like "S" and "Z" usage). Must we suck up so BADLY to China? Do they realise whatever they are fucking around with, it will take 10years to reap their errors and lack of judicious policy making strategies. (Think 2 child policy, think degrading of Mandarin to get the drift) It's disgusting... I almost canx wait to see China fall so that I can see people scramble to tweak or make new policies.

Afterall, our main medium is in English, wont it make more sense to spend more on recruiting English teacher to get our kids the right fundamental in linguistic basics? Bombarding the minds of young kids with grand sounding words isnt the right route, especially when they cannot even damn say the words right without sounding awkward or off from base. (eg: I have to correct my friends all the time when they say "colleague", "buffet" incorrectly. It's not "ker-lick" and neither is it "bull-fey"...sigh)

Having friends with kids, their common "laments" are that it's too much to overload the kids with so many languages. I beg to differ. Kids absorb languages like sponge when they are kids. I too disagree that bilingual is impossible. Living in HK currently, I had met several HK and taiwanese friends who spoke fluent English and yet retaining their perfect Cantonese or Mandarin. I have also known of American raised Koreans who spoke fluent Korean and English AND German language. I have had other friends who are from France who had a good command of English (with a slightly twisted french accent) and French. So the point to drive home is that it CAN be done. It's just not happening in Singapore because the people you place in schools are important. I am NOT saying local teachers are not good. I have good great Singaporean teachers too but the point is, we need to be stringent. Dont just train someone for the job and neglect the fact that this person is going to impact the next few generations to come.  Dont just cast all the excellent teachers in the so call "top schools", and parents do your kids a favor. (On the English front, I have always wanted to advise Singaporean parents that if you are not fluent in the language, please refrain from using it with your young kids because you are indirectly/ inevitably having them pick up the wrong grammar and pronunciation from you. Unless you are an 80yr old granny trying to communicate with your grandkids who only understand English then I suppose that's understandable.)

In the past, being enrolled into a local convent school then, I know I had the good fortune of benefiting for years, from a series of foreign native English teachers which allows my peers and I the grace of speaking reasonably non-singlish English. Yeah sure the flip side of having varied foreign teachers also means I have a "jumbled" accent toggling between the UK and American pronunciation but hey at least its not the wrong pronunciation. I only wish this had been a benefit for the rest of the children of Singapore. Will my wish ever materialised? Till then, the rest of the world and Sg alike will have to put up with our half-bake linguistic skills, where we are half-bilinguals. Meaning, we are only partially good in both languages. It's really an "open stigma" for many out there, that Singaporean speaks bad English and Mandarin. Yes, a fact known even way before that idiotic cowardly China freak openly mocked his host nation on a public media platform.

Then again, it depends on what is the definition of bilingual. Does it only apply to understanding it but not having to speak or write well? Or does being bilingual constitute being effective in both verbal and written? I think that may be the point of contention here.

PS - 5th Aug: In case I get misunderstood, I am NOT saying every Chinese must speak good Mandarin. I recognise the fact that some are brought up to in all English speaking family. It is fine to be fluent on one language, but my article is not to "attack" people who are fluent in English but bad in Mandarin. My post questions about the current situation on the lot that are neither here nor there, who speaks both inaccurate English and Mandarin (primarily more form chinese speaking family), and that the current system brags about us being "bilinguals" when actually alot are only passably good in both and not proficient in either and why the govt continues not to spend any effort in correcting that aspect...It just seem strange to me that we having growing import of teachers from China because of the growing influence of China, but they do nothing about the level of English teachers as in why not import UK teachers as well since English is our "professed national Business medium"?

As well, by proficient, I meant pronouncing words correctly, obeying grammar structure (eg: the way to use May I, Can I correctly etc)  In Mandarin aspect, I think structure is fine but we just cannot seem to get the eg: "zao" vs zhao, "cao" vs "chao" right. Not to mention conducting meetings in Mandarin, just pull anyone off the street and leave them in Taiwan or China and ban them from speaking English, can we speak without stutter or pauses with our minds blank searching for ways to express ourselves etc. If most of the population cannot, then effectively to me, that is half-bilingual.

That is the gist of my post about being half bilinguals. Please dont be offended if you happen to fluent in at least one of the medium and think this is an attack on you. It's not.


Anonymous said...

It's those older generation aka pre-Facebook, who have a better command of English or Mandarin than today's mumbled lot. Back then, we were taught the old fashioned way, ie, by rote. Call it what you may, but those methods, despite its perceived cruelty, actually worked. We had to practice and practice until our tongues were dried and twisted. But in the end, I like to believe we spoke better, had better understanding of words, and greater appreciation of the naunces each language pose to the listener/reader. Today's curriculum is like popping a bowl of cup noodles into the microwave. You'll get your stomach filled, but what is the nutrition compared to a properly cooked bowl of noodles?

Anonymous said...


we sinkies are neither here nor there, not east nor west, but an adulterated bunch.
In the old days, anyone in such class will be known as 'baba siow' meaning impure or mix breed, a derogatory term.
When Sin was a colony of the British, the locals did their best to preserve their cultural identities and customs.
When the local took over the ruling of Sin(independence), they(the Local leaders) began to engineer the people into a species that they(leaders) can exploit and manipulate socially for them(leaders) to easily lord over, thus a Race known as Sheeple is born. They are not bi-lingual but a tasty mix of 'rojaks' only the locals know to enjoy. And the 'rojaks' have no standing in the World.

"Just Me" said...

@Anon 1:08pm

I couldnt agree with you more esp on the rote learning part! Plus I like your analogy, Summed it up succinctly.

"Just Me" said...

@Anon 1:57pm

I agree too that we are neither here nor there, the idea of "fusion" Singaporean nation is really quite ridiculous really. I think rather than fusion which is akin to a perfect blend, we are more like a fucked up mashed up bunch, though I am not so sure about your take on the "baba" term.

I have Peranakan cousins and relatives and I remembered our "chinese' Chinese relatives called them Baba since I was young. However I was under the impression because they look Chinese but spoke Malay which sets them apart, and thus if someone cannot speak mandarin, they are "termed" to be like the Babas. perhaps the word has evolved to become derogatory and I remained unenlightened since I wont go up to my relatives to ask them on this sensitive "terminology"..:)

I suppose like you said about the british colony, that is why HK till now has a strong cultural identity and they didnt have any governing dictator that imposes his ideals on the people. The people took the country to where it is now.

The thing for me is this, while I can understand the notion of "aspirations" and "ideals" for a nation to be executed in a "communist influenced" manner, yet the core ideal must serve the people and the execution must be well. Along the way, we have had new people in power who assume new responsibilities and took over the baton from the pioneer guards over tweaked the system and changed things for the sake of changing, or just to prove they are doing something which I think is wrong. The core ideals were lost and we became lost in translation.

It's nice to be rojak in private, but in official seatings, its really quite a shame isnt it...

Anonymous said...

haha.. I enjoyed your resonates so deeply with me.
It's like this:
When we speak in English..the English laugh
When we speak in Mandarin..the Chinese also laugh
sooo sad..

Anonymous said...

Hi Just me;

do allow me to explain the term 'baba siow' a little more that anonymous me had posted at 1:57 Pm.

'Baba' in my village during the 50s to the 60s, were Chinese who used the Malay and English Languages in their verbal communications with others with little or no understanding of their own Dialects or Mandarin. Those with good commands of their mother tongues were called 'Baba' but, without the term 'siow' and most were well regarded.

The derogatory part is the word 'siow' which actually means semen(secreted by male species). The usual meaning if used derogatorily is inferior or useless.

Hope readers will take this post as a reflection of the past and not one to equal modern day Singaporeans to the social interpretation of the past. Today, if a Singaporean is not conversation with the English Language, he/she will be considered uneducated or one from the lower social ladder, quite a change isn't it?

"Just Me" said...

Anon @4:27pm

Thank you so much for explaining the Baba "siow" to me. I had initially interpreted the "Siow" as crazy (as in hokkien) and didnt realise it was refering to the other "Siow"/"Si-aow". (Intonation in dialect is important too! lol! ) With this, now I understand why its derogatory.

In true reflection of the past, I think senior folks like my parents era are great models because they are fluent in Mandarin, Dialect and general Malay due to the kampong community.

Sometimes I wonder wistfully, if mine will be the last generation born in the 70s to be able to speak our own dialect (eg: Hokkien Teochew) fluently. None of my friends are passing their ability to speak the dialect down to their kids anymore...that's a real shame.


Haha! I was laughing so hard in agreement. It's indeed sad that we get mocked at for our inadequacies... I wonder how long more before someone with power will take a good long hard look at the skillsets we are equipping our future generation with.

Anonymous said...

I belong to that group of old Chinese educated. I studied in the traditional Chinese government school for 12 years till pre-University. I was very fluent then after school and my English was suck. I could not even speak and write English when I served my NS. I suffered in NS because of my English skill. I learnt English on my own during NS and managed to enter the then University of Singapore. Of course, I would not be able to score as first class honor because I was struggling with the English. After 4 years, I managed to graduate as an Engineer. During my whole of my 30 years working life, there was no single occasion to use my Chinese/Mandarin except during the last few years (after China opened up to the world) when I was working in China for some projects. Then, I found my originally powerful Chinese has deteriorated to such an extent that I would not be able to write a simple letter after not using the language for 30 years.

More on me: I was well versed with Mandarin, Cantonese, Chinese history and culture. I am still listening to and understand the Cantonese Opera. On the other hand, I have improved my English though my brain is still thinking in Chinese way. I am well-versed with the western culture and history. I listen to Western Opera and musicals. Am I truly bilingual? Some people said yes. But, I said no because I know I am now neither here or there though I have a very solid foundation on Chinese/Mandarin/Cantonese and also a good working knowledge of English. And I cannot say I am very fluent in Chinese and English. I had also learnt Malay when I was in primary but what I can understand now are those Malay phrases used in NS. Who is to blame? We are just a digit of some one who thinks and still thinks he has done a great deal to our life. Today, I can safely say it is extremely difficult to find someone still understands the Chinese opera if this is a yardstick of the language proficiency.

Singaporeans have no identity. Our national building has failed in not just this aspect but also in political immature after 40-50 years. Real sad, sad, sad!

"Just Me" said...

Thank you for sharing your personal brief account. I sincerely applaud you on your efforts for taking up English on your own. In you dont mind me saying, dont be too hard on yourself. While you may think you are not bilingual, but I think you are at least more "purist" in Mandarin as compared to us the younger generations. So at least you are proficient in one language!

I suppose "fluency" is a very subjective word. In a job application form, I often paused for ages under the language fluency section. I can safely say I am fluent in English. However mandarin, who are they benchmarking me to? To my peers, I would indicate fluent, compared to other nationalities, I think I am mediocre.

In the end, I indicated "average" because I know deep down while I can flawlessly translate any given Mandarin article into English, I can no longer translate an English article into Mandarin because I lack the depth and poetic flowery words to compose a Chinese translation.

In HK, most of my counterparts think I am fluent for the fact that I can breeze (in terms of reading and understanding) through the working documentation or contract in both Taiwanese and China Mandarin. I can type msn in mandarin but to type an open letter or business email will absolutely kill me.

I suppose different people have different take on what is effectively bilingual. To me, I am refering to the verbatim aspect (speak and undersdtand).

I think we can pat ourselves on our back if we can carry a discussion without oral mispronunciation when we speak and minimal grammatical errors (typo excused) when we write the language, we can carry on a conversation in a single language with the ability to convey thoughts and feelings in a good flow without having to resort to pauses, hem and haw. I think that will be bi-lingual enough for me.

Before China opened up, while understandable Mandarin was not given the time of the day and not used at all at work, but as Chinese, I think it is our heritage to speak good Mandarin regardless if it has any economic value.There was no reason at all to "de-emphasise it" No one should have been given that right to degrade it to such a deplorable level that at one stage, some of our younger generation is a walking disgrace next to Kevin me that is a national failure and someone should take full credit indeed for that for "taking SG to where it is now"

Anonymous said...

Agree mostly with you. However, your perceived knowledge of Chinese is shaky. I graduated from The Chinese High School and can tell you that 早上 is used regularly in China and Taiwan. So is 吃饭时间. How do I know? I have spent two decades working with with Beijing U, Qinghua U and N. Taiwan U alumni.

Anonymous said...

It's not actually that hard to be bilingual. Or even trilingual. I am perfectly fluent in the second foreign language I learnt. And the third. It's the first foreign language I was forced to learn that I have a problem with - more on that later.

I agree with your title that something has gone terribly wrong in Singapore. The standard of English is pretty crap, but the standard of Mandarin isn't much better either. We have the worst of both worlds. At least in places like Taiwan or Japan, the standard of English may not be very good, but their Mandarin/Japanese is excellent. They know their mother tongues better than other people who learn it as a foreign language.

And that perhaps is the crux of the problem. What is the true mother tongue of Chinese Singaporeans? I don't know about you, but I grew up speaking two languages. Hokkien to grandparents and English to parents. The first time I ever heard Mandarin in my life was in primary school. I was told that I had to learn it 'because it's your mother tongue'. Huh? It is neither my mother tongue nor my mother's tongue. Nobody in my family has ever spoken Mandarin, it was Hokkien (and Cantonese on one side) going back thousands of years.

If you look at Hong Kong, before it was returned to China, few people spoke Mandarin. Why should they? It was not their mother tongue. That was Cantonese. I'm pretty sure the standard of (spoken) Mandarin in Hong Kong pre-1997 was pretty dismal.

I'm glad to hear that you had good Mandarin teachers in school. Unfortunately I did not have that privilege. I understand that the old Chinese-educated generation feels alienated by the changes in Singapore society. But don't take out your disenfranchisement on kids whose only crime was never to have heard Mandarin spoken at home.

And don't try to 'defend' your territory by insisting on 'high' standards for exams. In practice, what that means is that the standard may be high, but the language teaching is totally impractical. For example, I passed my AO level Chinese on my second attempt, purely by memorising 50 chen2 yu3 and using 26 of them in my essay. But after 14 years of formal Mandarin education, I still did not know the difference between the words for 'right' and 'left'. Why? No one ever taught that to me. They were too busy teaching chen2 yu3 and spouting stories about filial piety.

I look back at those 14 years of Mandarin hell with great regret. They were wasted years. It is not because I don't think learning Mandarin is not useful. Quite aside from the economic advantages, it's the key to a great civilization and long history. But none of that was ever conveyed in those 14 years.

Finally a response to something you said about English language teaching. Yes, the standard of English in Singapore is pretty poor, and that's shocking when you consider that we are good in no other language AND that English is the language of instruction. In most countries, the language of instruction in schools *is* the national language/mother tongue. I consider English my mother tongue because that is the language I grew up speaking most. I am proud to be a native speaker of English and do not consider proper, grammatical Singapore English to be in any way inferior to any of the other numerous varieties of English around the world. There is no canonical way of speaking English; in fact you will find that most Brits think that most Americans sound funny. Neither is right nor wrong; as long as you can make yourself easily understood, that is OK.

"Just Me" said...

Anon@ 2:21am

Hi there. I didnt and never said that it is incorrect or no one in china ever uses 早上。

What I am saying is how the uses has been jumbled up at times such as like it should be referred to as 上午班 rather than 早上班 etc.

Or rather,instead of pronouncing it as "zao", alot of people say it as "zhao". That is what I meant by we think "we are good" but we are not. We need to pay more attention to getting the word completely right and NOT just "almost" there right.

"Just Me" said...

Anon @6:01 AM

Like I told another comment poster, it IS okay to only know one language and be good in it. So in your case, it doesnt matter if you only recognised English as your mother tongue, I am fine with it so long as you are fluent in it.

What i am taking issue with is how the education FORCES upon us to take up BOTH languages so that we can be "labelled" as bi-linguals but in the end, produces citizens who are neither good in both.

In my observation (very small sampling group from people around me), it is often not the English speaking family that suffers. They may suffer in mandarin classes but they still speak good English. To me that is fine because at least they have one language they are good in.

However the people from Chinese family tend to suffer because they struggle with English but they cannot get out of NOT using English and as a result, are non ideal in both.

I am NOT discriminatiing against people who prefer to completely not use Mandarin. Language is a personal and environmental choice.

What I am questioning the policy of stripping people of the choice of mastering either one language either, rather than the situation now where we are neither here nor there..If the govt had truly wanted us to prioritise English as main language, my question is why then didnt they supply more qualified teachers across the island to arm us with better English. DONT deprioritise Mandarin and yet not get the English aspect right. Sure, our grammar and vocab may or not be there depending on our students willinging and apititude, but at least they could get someone who has the correct pronounciation.

On the last note, yes, perhaps Brits and American think each other talk funny but they generally do not mispronouce the words. Like the difference between "Envelope" , to say "Scone" with a silent e etc. Or the greatest problem in Singapore where we almost hardly ever get "th" right when we should. This goes beyond "sounding strange with the accent", ours is more serious than that.

Take for example "Ms Ris" , do you consider her "fluent" in English minus the sg accent? No. She can be understood by us but it does not make it ok.

PS: I am not some crazy defender of chinese education rights. I am just wishing that we can all speak better in any language we choose to speak, and in the zest of providing a bilingual "opportunities", we ended up not able to speak either language well for the general.