12 Aug 2006
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.
Posted by yuen at 8/12/2006 09:18:00 am