12 Aug 2006

Speak Chiniese Also Can

If you are a Chinese Singaporean, is Chinese your Second Language or Mother Tongue?

What's the difference? If you were born in an English speaking family, you might learn Chinese at school and use it for the purpose of work or cultural appreciation. You would have learnt it as a foreign language, using material similar to what is given to American or Korean students, usually designed for functionality in an environment likely to be encountered by a businessman or tourist. More advanced courses might include some literature, art or history, to make the learning more interesting and increase functionality in a social context. Only a small minority of the most advanced students would learn the language details needed by language specialists, so that they can teach future students who learn Chinese as a foreign language, or Chinese medium journalists/PR specialists who have to write highly polished articles for publication to be read by a native Chinese population, in order to propagate foreign information among them.

If Chinese is your mother tongue, you started speaking it when you were a toddler, and were already fairly fluent speaking it when you started school, whose Chinese classes would provide you with the written version of something you already knew, before strengthening it with regular practice and enhancing it both at the linguistic level and at the content level. Most probably lessons on other subjects, whether science, civics or history, would be conducted in Chinese, so that you would get practice in the formal use of the language in addition to daily informal use.

A typical Chinese Singaporean student would probably find that his/her situation does not quite fit either description; certainly it cannot not fit both; yet, we find that educationists here sometimes call Chinese "mother tongue" and sometimes "second language", and something is not right at the basic conceptual level.

For a simple illustration of the divergence between concept and practice: the title of this article "speak Chinese also can" is actually Chinese but being said in English, something referred to here as Singlish. Second language or Mother tongue? Well it is more complicated than I want to explain here; for now, just say that there is a problem and the solution is not yet obvious.


Gigi said...

The English and Chinese languages contain many contrasting differences, particularly in terms of grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary. Hence it is very difficult for anymore to master both languages. It would be like asking a person to be ambidextrous. If you look at people around us, those with a strong command of English are usually weak in Chinese, while those who are very strong in Chinese are usually weak in English. It's possible to be above average in both languages, but not quite possible to master both; at least I have not seen a single person who have done so in my life.

ben said...

MANDARIN Chinese is NOT my mother tongue, Hokkien is

Anonymous said...

my parents took great pains to smooth my path (and my brother's) with regards to language. my mother spoke to us exclusively in Mandarin, while my father spoke exclusively in English.

actually, the language distinction continues to this day.

while i did not perceive any advantages during my schooldays, i am now able to see that certain gaps exist in my knowledge of topic-specific vocabulary (especially technical terms) in both languages, simply because i never had to deal with them before. had i been able to see that and fill in my own gaps in knowledge, perhaps i would have had a smoother path trying to write essays closer to my heart in both languages.


Anonymous said...

it is possible to speak mandarin and english fluently. my american colleage holds an MA from Oxford university in English, and a dregree in Mandarin from a university in beijing. he often comes to singapore and corrects the Islands abysmal command of mandarin, as a fluent speaker he also writes one hundred thousand characters, far more than any singaporean. He also speaks fluent French and Spanish.

alex said...

I came from a "Chinese school" and went on to study my post-secondary education in English, after National Service. The working world demands good English in all the jobs I held. I have a strong liking of "my culture" and never stop improving myself by reading Chinese books, newspaper and articles. Not easy to keep two languages alive, however, it is worth all the extra work because I made a living with the English language and enjoy connected with the "Chinese world" with my language ability.

Anonymous said...

I call bull on the "one hundred thousand characters"

There are over 80,000 Chinese symbols (characters), but most of them are seldom used today.

The Chinese computerized fonts for words processor include 6,500 characters of the simplified form and 13,500 of the traditional form.

Anonymous said...

Trying to classify a language as "Second Language" or "Mother Tongue" to someone is a fairly pointless exercise. Both terms put far more weight on a person's ethnicity than what's truly important: fluency in the language.

Anonymous said...

the point is the two are taught differently; if the wrong method is used, the result is poor