Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ST: Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

From the Straits Times on 18 June 2008:

Learning Chinese - where there's a will, there's a way

I THANK readers who wrote in to discuss my article, 'Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?' (June 4). By so doing, you have provided the authorities feedback on the views, concerns and issues about the bilingual education policy. Hopefully, the Ministry of Education will take note and take appropriate measures to improve its implementation.

My message in the article is very clear: The right mindset, attitude, interest, motivation, time and effort are success factors for language learning, however difficult a language may be, including the absence of a supporting environment. These factors override linguistic difficulty.

Some readers have tried to read my mind, inaccurately for that matter. They say that in my mind, 'If I can, so can others'. The truth is it is just the opposite, that is, 'if others can, so can I'. Let us look at the statistics.

I (and others) believe that people can succeed in learning and acquiring a language if they want to. The Singapore Census of Population 2000 shows that Chinese Singaporeans (48.3 per cent English-Chinese bilinguists and 32 per cent Chinese monolinguists) have reached the high of 80.3 per cent acquisition of literacy in the Chinese language (CL). These figures speak for themselves and highlight the point that Chinese is not that difficult as perceived, at least to the vast majority.

Those who harp on CL's difficulty may unconsciously develop the negative mind-set, reluctance and resistance to learning the language. So unintentionally and unwittingly, they add on to the perceived difficulty and do themselves and their children a disservice.

Let us think positive. Look at it this way: When you love a language, it will love you and stay with you. I have read the Chinese learning experience of Joseph Needham in the book The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (HarpersCollin Publishers Inc 2008).

The late Cambridge University don was a biochemist by training. Unlike a professional sinologist 'who had gone through the mill of formal academic teaching in Chinese', Joseph Needham learnt Chinese, an unrelated language, without this benefit in his late 30s.

With great interest, enthusiasm, love, passion, effort and diligence, he attained his linguistic competence of 5,000 or 6,000 Chinese characters for full literacy in two to three years. By comparison, students in Singapore learn 3,500 Chinese characters in eight years, four years in primary school and another four in secondary school. This works out to 8.4 characters a week, including school holidays.

His experience shows that where there is a will, there is a way. So long as one wants something and is willing to work for it, one will get it. Many other non-Chinese Westerners have also got it.

Joseph Needham was the great author of the voluminous book (18 volumes) Science And Civilization In China. His mastery of Chinese gave him the key to unlock the door to the treasure of Chinese science, culture, history and civilisation. With his book, he became the great man who has made a tremendous contribution to the world's understanding of China.

As far as learning Chinese is concerned, 'he fell in love not simply with the language, but with China itself'. Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, has done so with the same spirit.

In conclusion, if you think CL is a useful key, learn to get it. If not, forget it. There is no need to justify your choice.

Lee Seng Giap

This is the same Mr. Lee who claimed two weeks ago that it is not hard to learn Chinese. I don't wish to waste my breath rebutting him but it is a matter of public record he did say that Chinese was not difficult to learn.



twasher said...

Yeah, and we're all Joseph Needhams.

Anonymous said...


SHIMURE said...

Actually it is not difficult to learn any language.

The problem is whether one has the interest or the passions required to learn that language.

If you are totally not interested in chinese, none of your friends speak in chinese, none of your family converse in chinese.
And you do not even like the chinese culture.

It would be very very difficult to learn it.

Whereas, if you require it to make a living. lets say you were to be posted to china and do a job....

Survival becomes a necessity.

Learning chinese would be easy.