18 November 2005

Speak Mandarin Campaign

Once again, the Speak Mandarin campaign is here. Mr Wang wrote a post in early September, where Mr Wang said that he would be interested in learning (or rather, relearning) the Mandarin language, but only for career-related reasons. Mr Wang had stated that he didn't see how learning the language would, for himself personally, have anything to do with being more "Chinese" or appreciating Chinese culture more deeply.

Today the Straits Times Forum has a letter which fortifies Mr Wang's conclusions, although ironically that would not have been the letter-writer's intentions.
Nov 18, 2005
He regrets he doesn't speak Mandarin

IT IS strange that younger English-speaking Singaporeans have been targeted in this year's Speak Mandarin Campaign. Being products of a bilingual education, surely there is an implicit tendency to speak the language without the need for exhortation. It is not a question of being Chinese but a matter of 'use it or lose it'. They are fortunate to be bilingual.

Hailing from the earliest baby-boomer generation, the second language was not a compulsory subject for my contemporaries and me and we were not exhorted to learn it. As a result, we missed out on many opportunities and, worse, were subjected to embarrassment in many situations.

I was in Beijing in the mid-1990s to set up my company's China office. Throughout my time there I had an interpreter and it was very awkward, especially when the Chinese knew I was from Singapore where it is a given that you are bilingual. I must admit I felt ashamed.

Then, there was the holiday trip to Guilin. I was the only person in the group of 26 that could not understand the tour guide and missed out on all the great stories he told.

At home, though I watch Channel 8, I had to develop a quick eye to read the English subtitles to understand the story. I would have enjoyed the shows much more if only I could understand and speak Mandarin.

So, to the younger English-speaking Singaporeans, here is my advice: do not do away with Mandarin, speak it as often as possible. Do not let your language ability atrophy, or you will feel the loss. However, do not put down people who cannot speak and understand Mandarin.

Harry Chia Kim Seng
The writer has offered three examples of situations where he felt disadvantaged or embarrassed due to his lack of ability in the Mandarin language. Mr Wang will now briefly comment on these three examples.

The Holiday Trip to Guilin.. The writer forgot to inform you that you could just as well take a holiday to Thailand, France or Japan. In those cases, you would suffer similar disadvantages due to your not knowing Thai, French or Japanese. On the other hand, none of us have the time to learn all the many different useful languages in the world.

The Channel 8 TV shows. Mr Wang will only say that you're not missing much. If you do not watch these shows at all, Mr Wang doubts that your quality of life has suffered to any significant extent.

Setting up the China office. Mr Wang agrees that for career reasons, it may be useful to learn Mandarin. See Mr Wang's earlier post. That, however, is to Mr Wang the only really compelling reason for considering making the effort to learn (or relearn) Mandarin.

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Tattler said...

I brushed up my Mandarin during a period when I had to visit Taiwan often on business. The clients appreciated my efforts at speaking their language, but during the technical presentations, they insisted I use English. Reason? They want to learn the technical terms, the Chinese equivalent were not too accurate. "Computer" doesn't come across too well when the Mandarin translation is "electric brain."
The same issue came about when I was presenting to mainland Chinese in the offshore industry in Beijing. They didn't appreciate the Chinese equivalents of the technical terms.
Point is, the Chinese know the language of commerce and science is English, and there's no way around it. The joke on the administrators is that while they are pushing Mandarin, the Chinese are busy learning English. Do they honestly think China wants Singapore to be their translator to do business with the West?

adriantan18 said...

People still watch Channel 8??

Blank Doll said...

Nonetheless, it is still quite a sad thing when a Chinese does not know Chinese for the simple reason that there is another part of us lost. It doesn't matter that you feel embarrassed not knowing French because your ancestors didn't. The word shouldn't be embarrassed. It should be sad. There is so much to reclaim from being Chinese and part of the joy derived from being Chinese comes from being able to speak the language. Singapore has enough it's-so-cool-not-to-speak-mandarin-well youths as it were. This is of course, the view of an idealistic student.

GK said...

That's why I regret forgetting my Hokkien. But not my Mandarin.

Anonymous said...

I'm an American. My ancestors came from Sweden and Norway. Do you really expect me to learn Swedish and Norweigan since my distant ancestors came from those countries?

Of course not.

Singapore people come from all regions of China. Why should they be requested to learn regional dialects? I just don't get this line of reasoning.

What is really going on here?

beAr said...

Hi friskodude and susilo,

"Singapore people come from all regions of China. Why should they be requested to learn regional dialects? I just don't get this line of reasoning."

"...it is still quite a sad thing when a Chinese does not know Chinese for the simple reason that there is another part of us lost."

I was born and bred in Singapore; I don't think of myself as Chinese in the way that a China Chinese thinks of himself as such. Instead I'd like to think of myself as Singaporean. There are Chinese families in Singapore who do not even speak a word of Chinese at home, since English is so commonly used in Singapore.

It's just like friskodude; you thinking of yourself as American. Your family probably defines itself with the English language; thus you do not think (and rather correctly, I'd say) you'd need to know Swedish and Norweigan to know yourself.

So, Chinese in Mr Wang's case = Swedish and Norweigan in your case. Ergo, Mr Wang's comments on Chinese.

Regarding to dialects, it is not mandatory for Singaporeans to learn their regional dialects; however, since most of our (here I mean Singaporean Chinese of course) grandparents/parents (depending on which generation you are) actually lived in China before, and spoke those dialects, by not knowing one's dialect, some people may find it difficult to converse with their elders, or to know our family histories, or to even go back to those parts of China to meet up with our distant relatives. I suppose that's why some Singaporeans lament at not having the chance to know our dialects.

Jon said...

Spot on with the comments on Channel 8, Mr Wang! By the way, is it any wonder why malays and indians seem to be alienated from the speak-your-mother-tongue campaign?

It's complete bullocks to think that speaking mandarin is a necessity for Chinese Singaporeans. Heritage and culture can still be propagated without the use of mother tongue languages, that friskodude will probably atest to. Trying to instill mandarin into society sends mixed messages. A dual national identity that leads to an identity crisis. There is nothing wrong with learning your mother tongue of course. But i believe it should be one purely out of interest rather than a necessity (unless for career purposes). Also consider that in the spirit of maintaining 'Chinese roots', not every chinese s'porean ancestor spoke mandarin. Many spoke other dialects as you probably know, without knowing mandarin. So how is the current campaign in addition to school curriculum in keeping with "maintaining heritage"? Au Waipang of Yawning Bread once wrote an insightful view on this subject.

I beg to differ that not knowing mandarin in 10 years time will have the same impact as not knowing english and render one "irrelevant". While western businessmen may take up mandarin, don't forget how many Chinese are taking up English. They too realise the importance of English in the business industry. And if Singaporeans really do want to reap the rewards of primary/secondary school mandarin classes, why exclude malays and indians from potential career benefits in the future? If Malaysia can make malay mandatory for all races, cant Singapore make mandarin mandatory too? Hmm...

Anonymous said...

When in Rome, why not let the Romans teach you?

In Huangshan (黄山) southern Anhui province in Eastern China, Fu Shou-Bing logs on to the computer in the public library near his village. Since discovering ECpod.com (http://www.ECpod.com), the retired High School Chemistry teacher has been logging on almost every day to the English-Chinese teaching website. Sometimes he cycles the 25 miles home, cooks himself a simple lunch of rice and stir-fried vegetables with salted fish, often returning once again to the library and his new hobby in the evening.

ECpod.com boasts an educational website that teaches members conversational English or Chinese (no "this is an apple" stuff here) via video clips contributed by other members. After a vetting and often transcribing process by language tutors commissioned by the site, the clips are available free of charge in YouTube fashion. The twist? Members film each other in everyday activities, hoping other members will learn not just their native tongue, but also cultural innuendos lost in textbooks and more conventional means of language learning.

"One member filmed himself cooking in his kitchen. We got a few emails asking what condiments he used," says a bemused Warwick Hau, one of the site's more public faces. One emailer even wanted to know if she could achieve the same Chinese stir-fry using ingredients from her regular CR Vanguard (华润超级) supermarket. "We often forget our every day activities may not be as mundane to people on the other side of the world," Hau adds. Another such clip is "loaches" - a Chinese mother of 3 filmed her children and their friends playing with a bucket of loaches - slippery eel-like fish the children were picking up and gently squeezing between their fingers.

Lately the members have also begun to make cross-border friends and contacts. The ECpal function works much the same way sites like Facebook.com and MySpace.com work - members can invite each other to view their clips and make friends. And it has its fair share of juvenile humor as well. “Farting Competition” features two teenagers and graphic sound effects. Within several days, the clip was one of the most popular videos that week, likely due to mass-forwarding by the participants’ schoolmates.

For other members keen to learn more than the fact juvenile humor is similar everywhere, there are many home videos featuring unlikely little nuggets of wisdom. “The last thing I learned from the site is why you never find green caps for sale in China”, says Adam Schiedler one of the English language contributors to the site. Green caps signify cuckolded husbands, particularly shameful in China as they are a huge loss of face. Adam vows not to buy any green headgear for his newfound friends.

The subject matter of the videos often speaks volumes about its contributors. Members choose their own content and film the clip wherever they please, some of their efforts drawing attention to rural surroundings and the quaint insides of little homes otherwise not seen unless you backpack your way thru the tiny dirt roads and villages along the Chinese countryside.

Idyllic countrysides and cooking lessons aside however, ECpod marries the latest video sharing technology with the old school way of teaching a language - from the native speakers on the street. It's a modern, more convenient alternative to spending 6 months in China. And why not let the Chinese teach you?

Visit http://www.ECpod.com