Thursday, 31 July 2014

Debunking myths in revitalising Chinese languages

By Luke Lu, Published TODAY, 30 Jul 2014

In the past few weeks, there have been various calls (including a letter to Today’s Voices and an editorial in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao) for Chinese languages other than Mandarin to be given a more prominent space in the public sphere in Singapore. The Prime Minister’s Office also weighed in on the issue by responding to Zaobao’s editorial.

Calls to revitalise Chinese languages are not new and have, indeed, surfaced on occasion since the shift towards English and Mandarin became obvious to the public. However, the debate has often involved assumptions and gross simplifications that seem to perpetuate popular myths regarding language in practice and identity.


A common view is that the average person has a limited mind that is incapable of learning and handling more than two languages. It is true that adult learners do find it more difficult to acquire new languages and attain a high level of proficiency in them.

It is this view that seems to be translated into our education policy, under which only students who do well enough in school are allowed to learn a third language.

However, one’s ability to acquire multiple languages is particularly contingent on one’s social environment, exposure to and constant use of these languages; and less so a matter of IQ and academic proclivity.

There is no evidence to suggest exposure to more than two languages leads to a confounding of one’s linguistic abilities. In the same vein, it is not true that the use of Chinese languages — or what most Singaporeans would call dialects — in the home environment will necessarily impede one’s learning of Mandarin.

How then do we account for the situation in a society such as Hong Kong, where students face difficulties acquiring English and Mandarin? For one, Hong Kong’s sociolinguistic milieu is hardly comparable with Singapore’s. Hong Kong has had a stable population of 90 per cent ethnic Chinese, who have been almost homogeneously Cantonese-speaking throughout its history.

Cantonese has developed as a strong marker of Hong Kong’s identity and has been preponderant in all social domains, including its bureaucracy, media and family life. Hong Kong’s struggles with English and Mandarin are less a result of trying to teach students three languages, but rather due to the pre-existing dominance of Cantonese in all spheres of life.

At the end of the day, it really depends on what our goals of learning a language are. We must realise the mastery of both written and oral forms of a language is often not required for effective communication, especially in informal contexts.

Anecdotally, my parents and their peers are rather conversant in English, Mandarin, Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Teochew, as well as even bits of Bazaar Malay. This is surely a result of their linguistic environment and upbringing, something that I have never experienced.

While Chinese languages may not hinder Mandarin learning, it is another matter to assert that these languages will automatically act as a “bridge” to acquiring Mandarin. As it stands today, there is little education and sociolinguistic literature that proves such a claim.

It is important to note that I use the term Chinese “languages” instead of “dialects” in the way that linguists usually do. Dialects are varieties of a common language that may be denoted by regional speech patterns or social class.

In this way, linguistic codes such as Mandarin and Cantonese are not really varieties of the same language. That they belong to a theoretically abstract “language family” obscures the fact that many of the Chinese languages are mutually unintelligible in speech, with idiomatic expressions that are wholly distinct. More sociolinguistic research is needed to determine whether the use of any Chinese language at home facilitates learning of Mandarin.


Implicit in the statements of many who lament the loss of Chinese languages is the view that there was a time when the use of Chinese languages and Mandarin was more prevalent and Chinese standards were much higher in Singapore. It is debatable whether standards have indeed fallen as a result of the bilingual policy.

It is an undeniable fact that Chinese literacy has increased remarkably from the ’50s and ’60s, when most ethnic Chinese did not attend schools or speak Mandarin. Even when Chinese-medium schools had been phased out by 1987, literacy rates in Chinese continued to rise from 79.1 per cent in 1990 to 82.2 per cent in 2000.

We may have lost a significant number of Chinese-speaking intellectuals, but this has conceivably been made up for in absolute numbers of individuals who can speak and write basic Mandarin/Chinese. The number of bilinguals literate in both English and Chinese has also significantly increased to this day.

Finally, there is a need to be aware that many young Chinese in Singapore today may not feel anything lacking or deficient in their sense of self for not being able to use Chinese languages. Nor do they perceive these Chinese languages and cultural practices to be an intrinsic part of their heritage.

After two generations of bilingual education, many Singaporean Chinese may now be, linguistically and culturally, more Singaporean than Chinese and happy to so identify themselves.

Consequently, the movement to revitalise Chinese languages should not seek to represent all Chinese in Singapore, because not all who are Chinese here have the same linguistic needs and desires.

It may be more appropriate for individuals or groups interested in promoting Chinese languages to be self-funded and remain a niche movement, rather than for this to be a matter of national policy.

A common criticism of the Speak Mandarin Campaign was that it was imposed unilaterally without accounting for the diverse needs of the Chinese community. Proponents in favour of revitalising Chinese languages would do well to learn from this and engage other Chinese in negotiation and consultation first, before assuming to speak for the entire populace.

Efforts to revitalise languages or reverse language loss often require tremendous political will and resources. This is exacerbated by the fact that the younger generation’s linguistic identities have changed, so calls to reverse these trends may already be 20 years too late.

It is one thing to lament the loss of certain ways of life and heritage in Singapore and quite another to want to reintroduce them to current social practice.

Luke Lu, a Singaporean, is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication at King’s College London.


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