A sharply dressed Indian man steps up to the microphone – he is the first speaker representing the SMU team in a competition held in Taiwan. Curious murmurs break out among the other teams, prompted by the appearance of the only non-Chinese person to speak all day.
“Hello,” he begins in Mandarin, the start of a painstakingly memorised sentence he had been practicing for the past four hours. “We represent Singapore Management University…”
A stunned silence blankets the crowd for a heartbeat, and then the entire auditorium breaks into applause.
Nearly a month after I came back from Taiwan, that memory still stays fresh in my mind.
Of course, the reason why the Chinese audience were so in awe was because no one expected an Indian person to speak their native language. It is an attitude that carried over to the rest of our team– I don’t think we were expecting each other to be able to speak fluent Mandarin during the competition either. We winged the presentation in a mixture of English and Mandarin, resorting to the former when we couldn’t remember the technical vocabulary for phrases such as “holding company” and “operating costs”.
A contestant later came up to us and praised us for our bilingual abilities. We thanked her, naturally, but I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly she meant by “bilingual": the ability to be fluently speak two languages? The ability to switch easily between the two? After all, the two are pretty mutually exclusive – it was because we lacked fluency in Mandarin that we switched intermittently to English during the competition. Did this count as bilingualism?
Perhaps it might have, but not ‘bilingual’ in the nature that Singapore’s bilingual policy that was implemented years ago originally planned for.
Image credits: Sammi Wong, Asian Fortune News
Singapore is well known for its bilingual policy – all children from primary to secondary school are to be educated in both English and their own mother tongues. In theory, this makes us unique in the region, as an extremely marketable people who can speak two languages fluently.
In theory, anyway.
The number of English-speaking households has steadily increased – from 2000 to 2010, this number jumped from 23.0% to 32.3%. (2010 Population Census) I cannot help but think that as more and more of the current younger generation matures, the population risks losing touch with their own mother tongues. It even is the butt of many jokes amongst us – “You can’t learn Mandarin properly in 16 years,” laughed a friend recently, when a non-Chinese friend expressed interest in picking up the language. “Believe me, we’ve tried.”
Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps part of the “fault” lies with our no-nonsense, practical upbringing, an unfortunate but necessary consequence of our rapid transition from third- to first-world in less than half a century. In a 2004 speech, our late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew expressed that as Singaporeans, we learned our mother tongues to preserve cultural identities, and English to remain competitive in the job market. Mother tongue thus becomes the “token” language - the second less important language, taught for the sake of fulfilling a mandatory requirement in our education. We learn it by rote, memorising key phrases for the sake of passing our exams, and lose any appreciation we might hold for the language in the process.
The main consideration comes back down to utility: in one of the world’s most globalised cities, English is the language of trade – of survival – and hence much more worth learning. When a foreigner praises our fluent English, surprise in their voice, it is with pride that we reply: “Of course – it is our first language.”
Perhaps if we had that same pride in our mother tongues as many other countries in Europe and Asia do, this would be less of an issue. But language is more than just words and rules of grammar – an entire culture is tied to our mother tongues, a culture that we as Singaporeans may not be entirely resonant with. We have, after all, amalgamated cultural elements from everywhere to form one that is uniquely our own. And perhaps, therein lies the root of the problem: if we learn a language for the purpose of preserving a cultural identity that we may not necessarily identify with, is there really a purpose in learning it at all? Should we still proudly claim that we are a bilingual people?
Image credits: Wikipedia
There are some who would say “yes”. Some would view our half-baked mother tongue abilities (like the tendency to resort to English when we can’t think of the proper mother tongue equivalent) as just another linguistic quirk of our people, similar to the way we have amalgamated Malay with a smattering of Chinese dialects to form our very own dialect, Singlish.
But that’s a discussion for another time. Today, I’ll content myself with my badly-accented Mandarin, because it is understandable (although just barely) enough for Singaporeans. This is not to say that we should be content with using this standard of Mandarin in Mandarin-speaking countries. (I wouldn’t dream of using my half-and-half mix when directing a taxi driver in Beijing.)
Back home in Singapore, however, perhaps this half-and-half makes us just bilingual enough.