Tuesday, June 03, 2008

ST: Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?

From the Straits Times on 4 Jun 2008:

Who says it's hard to learn Chinese?
By Lee Seng Giap, For The Straits Times

SOME English-educated Chinese Singaporeans think and say that Chinese is difficult to learn. That is why their children find it hard to pick up Chinese, they say.

Is this really the case? I have found the answer is an emphatic 'No!'

Vili Maunula, a theoretical linguist, writes: 'All languages are, to the best of our current understanding of human languages, equally suitable for conversation. No language is more expressive or less expressive than the other, neither is one language easier or more difficult.'

My own language-learning experience from childhood supports this view. I grew up in a dialect-speaking home. My mother had never been to school. My father had learnt some Chinese in the Hokkien dialect in an old-style village school in China before coming to Singapore at the age of 13. In my childhood days, Mandarin and English were hardly spoken among the Chinese community.

When I first went to a Chinese school, I could speak neither Mandarin nor English. I did not even know how to write my name in Chinese or English.

But I started learning Chinese and English. I was interested and had an open mind. I worked hard. I finished the six-year Chinese primary school in five years. I graduated as the top boy of my year in 1950.

Then I decided to switch from the Chinese stream to the English stream. My oral English was not good then. I had had no chance to speak English other than reading aloud in class. So, in the English school, my classmates called me 'Chinaman' because of my poor spoken English.

I listened to BBC broadcasts, read English books, attended public lectures in English and also made it a point to ask questions and make comments. I also had pen pals with whom I corresponded in English.

I even learnt the international phonetic system, as I had done the old Chinese phonetic symbols (now replaced by the hanyu pinyin).

With an open mind and effort, my English improved by leaps and bounds. I topped the school in English. Much to my surprise and pleasure, I even scored a distinction in English in my Senior Cambridge School Certificate examination in the mid-1950s.

All this while, I never stopped learning Chinese. I continued to improve my Chinese by listening to local and Peking Mandarin broadcasts.

When I sat for the Chinese Senior Middle III Government examination as a private candidate, I scored distinctions for both Chinese and English. And when I took the Higher School Certificate (HSC, now A-level), again as a private candidate, I received distinctions for the general paper and Chinese.

I later signed up as an external student for a Bachelor of Arts honours degree in Chinese and passed with a good grade from the School of Oriental and African Studies, which required, and still does, answers for examination papers in both Chinese and English.

Based on the misconception that Chinese is a difficult language for those from an English-speaking background - and that English too is difficult for those from a dialect-speaking environment - I should not have done so well in these two languages.

A closed mind is a blocked mind. Things are shut out and you lose out. The best way to learn Chinese is to keep an open mind, do away with prejudice and be passionate about learning the language and culture.

The rise of China in recent years has created a global wave of interest in learning Chinese. In the United States and Europe, there are now Caucasians who are professional English-Chinese translators.

Even Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has picked up so much Chinese that he won applause for his fluent Mandarin when he spoke at Beijing University in April.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced last year a list of 1,600 to 1,700 Chinese characters for CL (Chinese language) pupils, and 1,800 to 1,900 characters for HCL (higher Chinese language) pupils in primary school.

There are 52 weeks in a year and 312 weeks in six years. If one divided 1,700 and 1,900 respectively by 312 multiplied by seven days, CL students would have to learn 0.78 character a day, while HCL students would have to learn 0.87 character.

Of the two Chinese character lists, 600 to 700 characters in CL and 400 to 500 in HCL are for word recognition only, not for writing.

The revised list of Chinese characters for secondary school students is not available yet. Based on the MOE announcement in 2002, the list for CL students was 3,000 characters, of which 300 are for word recognition only.

For HCL students, the list contains 3,500 characters for word recognition and writing. Both lists include characters from primary school.

In effect, CL secondary students need learn only an additional 1,400 characters at most and HCL students an additional 1,700 new characters. This is quite manageable, even if school holidays are not counted.

It is a question of mindset. Have the right mindset and you will succeed.

I once saw a poster of seagulls flying over a stormy sea. The caption read: 'They can because they think they can.'

That gets to the heart of the matter.

The writer is a veteran English-Chinese simultaneous interpreter and book translator.

I get annoyed by articles like this. Not because I am against learning Chinese but because articles like this, which appeared in the Review section of the Straits Times, trivialize the difficulty of learning two extremely different languages. This is an opinion piece unbacked by data and has no place in the Review section of the national broadsheet.

It is true that many English-speaking parents complain that Chinese is difficult for their kids to learn. Just because Mr Lee managed to become proficient in it doesn't mean that it isn't. When we say some task is difficult, we mean that it is not easily and readily done and that it requires much labour, skill and planning in order for it to be performed successfully. Difficult certainly does not mean that the task is unachievable, just that it requires extra effort. If anything, Mr Lee's detailed account of his tremendous extra-curricular effort and time contradicts his claim that learning Chinese and English is not difficult.

Language acquisition is a function of one's linguistic environment. For many kids who come from an English-speaking background, learning Chinese is tough and vice versa. This, of course, doesn't mean that those kids cannot do it; it's just that it would require considerable additional effort and motivation and it is not necessarily obvious to them, or to me, why they should do so.

Take me for example. I come from a Chinese-speaking background but have never identified very much with contemporary Chinese culture. I don't listen at all to Chinese music, which seems to be mostly soapy love songs. Radiohead is more my cup of tea. I do read some Chinese newspapers and magazine but that's about it. Yazhou Zhoukan is pretty good. My attitude towards Chinese is pragmatic - it just allows me to read more stuff. Being Chinese is a matter of ethnic descent to me, something I had no choice over, and not one of self-identification.

Back to the issue at hand. Mr. Lee was obviously a very motivated learner of Chinese and English. But that's not the point. Every person can be a very motivated learner of something and if one is sufficiently motivated, one can usually learn something well enough. For instance, Mr. Lee should be sufficiently intelligent to learn at least one computer programming language but it is highly likely that he doesn't know Matlab. Why doesn't Mr. Lee know Matlab? Well, he probably think it is irrelevant.

The same goes for some people in the schooling system. Sure, Chinese is important for many things but it is not important to every single Chinese Singaporean kid. There is an attitude, held sincerely by many in Singapore, that English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans are somehow morally deficient. I am pretty sure that most Chinese teachers during my school days had the point of view: because you are an ethnic Chinese, you must learn to speak Chinese. Not being able or inclined to do so made one a racial traitor. Surprisingly, most Chinese Singaporeans ,who hold that view and never fail to remind their fellow non-Chinese speaking Chinese Singaporeans, generally lack the gonads to tell it to other Chinese people living in the Phillipines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

People usually learn a language because they need it, not out of any sense of ethnic loyalty. Many people cannot be bilingual simply because their environment simply isn't conducive for that. Blame Singapore where most official business are conducted in English, not the kids. The very fact Mr. Lee had to toil to learn both English and Mandarin suggests that being effectively bilingual is an achievement not attainable by the average Chinese Singapoean. In some sense, Mr. Lee ought to be thankful for that. Would we have the need for translators if everyone were equally facile in English and Chinese?

There is no point bringing up examples of Caucasians who speak and write Chinese and comparing them with Chinese Singaporeans who are illiterate in the language. As if being born Chinese endows you with any special genetic ability to learn the Chinese language! After all, most Chinese-literate non-Chinese people have the advantage of going through specialized language training to acquire their linguistic skills in Chinese. Kevin Rudd studied Chinese as an undergraduate and went to Taiwan to polish up his Mandarin skills. Instead of using isolated irrelevant examples of Chinese-literate non-Chinese from outside of Singapore, the proper benchmark should be non-Chinese students in the Singapore educational system studying Chinese. Do they, on average, demonstrate a better command of Chinese, after controlling for variables like intelligence and academic ability?

Of course, my detractors will say that as sons and daughters of the dragon, Chinese Singaporeans should learn to speak Chinese. This is obviously a particular point of view and there is no rational reason to submit to it. For instance, a Muslim Singaporean could tell you that it is immoral to drink alcohol but why should you accept its imposition on the rest of Singapore? It also betrays an ignorance of the history of the ethnogenesis of the Han Chinese race in China. Most South Chinese are descended, at least partially, from the non-Sinitic aboriginal natives of South China. In other words, like many Chinese Singaporeans, I probably had ancestors who didn't speak a Chinese language as their mother tongue but took up the language and passed it on to their kids. Those ancestors of mine and of many Chinese Singaporeans must have given up their original native language in the process of becoming Chinese. So, it is not a little hypocritical to demand total linguistic loyalty from Chinese Singaporeans.


EliaDiodati said...

It's all the more ironic that most Chinese speaking Singaporeans don't have true monolingual proficiency in Chinese. The vast and overwhelming majority of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans that I know, even those from "Cina" backgrounds, are not entirely comfortable forming a single sentence in pure Chinese for anything other than the most trivial of statements. For example, even something as simple as "I want to shop at Takashimaya" is most often rendered as "我要去 taka shopping". Saying "我要去高岛屋逛街" would sound strange and overly pendantic to them.

EliaDiodati said...

Also, see where the quote came from.

Fox said...

I would personally say "我要去Takashimaya逛街".

Anonymous said...

George says:
Very well argued my friend. Splendid article. I too hate those who oversimplify the issue with scant regard for the facts on the ground.

LKY had a tremendous political motivation to learn Mandarin - he was fighting the Chinese-educated/extremists for the hearts and minds of the average Chinese then. And of course, he had the BEST teachers and resources to help him succeed. And he could focus exclusively. Compare this to the many school subjects that students have to tackle in school. Well, for that matter, it is pertinent to ask how well LKY did in his Chinese when he was a student in primary and secondary school? What about people like Goh Keng Swee, the man credited with building the Singapore economy? One can go on and on in like vein.

You are right, there simply isn't the milieu and environment in Singapore to help students succeed in learning the language. And if one pause to recall the general lament about how equally poor the general standard of written and spoken English is here in Singapore, one should have realised that the problem is one of learning a language. The lack of success in Mandarin runs parallel to the lack of success in English. English, or rather broken English, has a slight edge for no other reason that because its actual general usage is higher, being the language of teaching, commerced, govt etc. So, really people who failed to see such obvious truth are either blind or chose to plug their favourite bias regardless of the interest of others. They deserved, to my mind, to be at best ignored at worst, shouted down for such obstinacy.

Teng Seow Peng said: It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white. What's important is whether it good at catching rats!

To claim that being able to speak Chinese gives us an edge in business dealing in China is to perpetuate a fairytale. The Chinese are even more pragmatic and hardheaded than perhaps even LKY when it comes to calculating what's in it for them.

danny said...

As China increasingly is seen as a growing business power, interest in learning the Chinese language had rocketed, and dominance of Chinese over English will be a long time coming. More and more people begin to learn Chinese, because here is clear career potential for the future. Chinese language education market will be prosperous. Check the site http://www.learnchinese.bj.cn/ to learn more about learning Chinese.

Ivan Chew said...

I can understand your annoyance. The article can be read as saying there must be something wrong with other people since they don't find it easy. And can be inferred as saying that they should be more hardworking like the writer. It's a basic human response to feel miffed. It reads too much like "See how clever I am?"

Would have been more palatable if the article acknowledged that it's hard learning any new language. And the specific ways the writer overcame it. That, I can emphatise.

Hanifa C said...

I am non-Chinese Singaporean and I am trilingual. In my time, there were only a handful non-Chinese taking Mandarin as a 2nd language. Then it is easier to appreciate learning Mandarin as a culture than it is now. No offense to the chinese, i fail to feel attracted to the culture but although i am fascinated by the language. I can teach native chinese children their native tongue better than their parents; I believe that is because I had the cultural experience back then. Now it is hardly possible to find a child at the playground speaking Mandarin without having their parents guiding them back to speak English, albeit broken of course. It is indeed disappointing.