Monday, May 07, 2007

Preserving the Chinese language

There was a slew of letters in the ST Forum yesterday (7 May 2007) on how the standard in the Chinese language has declined among young Chinese Singaporeans, which is something I don't deny. Given the growing dominance of English in Singapore as a lingua franca, it is hardly surprising that fluency and literacy in other languages have waned.

One writer correctly diagnosed the cause of this decline - it is the lack of usage or practice of the language. Many of those who wrote in suggested that the people in charge of the Speak Mandarin/Huayu Cool Campaign should appeal to people's sense of the aesthetics, by communicating to people 'the sheer beauty and elegance of the Chinese language', in the words of one of the letter writers, to get more people to use the Chinese language.

While their aims are laudable, I think these people are rather naive and refuse to face up to the root cause of this decline. The use of the Chinese language in Singapore is declining because of its limited functionality in Singapore. You don't necessarily have to use it to file your taxes, shop in NTUC, get a taxi, read a book on financial investments, find a job, etc. On the other hand, not knowing English is a serious handicap in Singapore nowadays. Not knowing it would exclude you from many economic and social opportunities. The same is true for Tamil and Malay in Singapore although they don't quite receive as much attention in the Singapore papers.

It's simple. People use languages primarily to communicate, not to appreciate its beauty and elegance. As if Tamil and Malay have any less beauty and elegance than Chinese! And yet, you see that Tamil and Malay are also declining in Singapore, maybe a little less so for Malay since the local Malay community can tap into the linguistic reservoir of our neighbours up north. Given the limited utility of non-English languages in Singapore, it is no surprise that literacy in these languages have declined. For most people of my generation, our fluency in our ethnic languages atrophied once we left school.

To improve literacy in these languages, we have to create the environment in which these languages are of greater social and economic utility. One way would be to set up isolated ethnic enclaves, as in Malaysia where you have entire villages/towns of Hakka or Tamil speakers. Another way would be to push actively for the use of ethnic languages in government services. For example, if you are are a Chinese HDB applicant, you have to file your documents in Chinese. People are not going to use a language or maintain their command of it for the purpose of appreciating its beauty alone. For me, my command of Chinese actually improved, out of sheer necessity, after I had left school because I was forced to work with colleagues from the PRC.

Of course, such measures would be impossible in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society in which English is the working language. The state of the linguistic ecosystem favours the acquisition of English as the primary language no matter of how cool or beautiful some other language is made out to be. We have to accept that so long as some languages have a more limited functionality in Singapore, they will have to play second-fiddle to the one that offers the most practical advantages.


Piper said...

I acutally feel sad that I have neglected my Mandarin ever since I was in University. It is somewhat difficult to pick it up again. You're right though. All languages are beautiful, it's a pity it took me so long to realise that.

As long as China's economy continues to grow, I think we will always have a section of people who will be fluent in Mandarin. And this may increase if people see Mandarin becoming more important economically. In fact, I think Tamil and the other Indian languages are facing the most threat.

Fox said...

Don't worry. Find some PRC/Taiwanese room-mates/colleagues or go work in China. You'll be surprised how fast you will pick up the language with the minimum of self-motivation.

You just won't pick up the language in Singapore unless you put in a lot of effort. The linguistic environment just doesn't allow for that.

For example, when I was living in Singapore, I liked to watch wildlife documentaries. Unfortunately, almost all of that stuff in Singapore was in English. However, had those documentaries been in Chinese, I would certainly have been forced to learn Chinese to watch them.

Anonymous said...

One thing I am appalled with when I go back to Singapore, is the standard of Mandarin being spoken on TV and radio. It really does not help if people think that what is spoken on variety shows is standard Mandarin. We don't have to speak with a Beijing or Taiwan accent, but at least use proper sentences and cut out the Singlish!

Christopher said...

Piper, the Indians probably don't pay much attention to Tamil anyway since only a minority in India use it. Hindi on the other hand is definitely not under threat if Bollywood is any indication of how the language is doing.

I think this post is spot-on when it talks about utility. There was no need for language campaigns in the past when dialects were common and many Chinese Singaporeans learnt to speak some Malay while some Malay Singaporeans learnt some Chinese dialects.

And the idea that we're losing our roots? I think that's just unnecessary panic. Plant a potato in China and he or she will develop some Mandarin competency soon enough.