Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Decline of Mother Tongue - Should we be worried?

Assumptions. Unspoken Assumptions. Damn Assumptions.

There is a Malay Language Month. Apparently, the Malay community had long realised that there is a danger that the Malay language (Bahasa) will fall out of use, and fall in standards. So why this sudden concern with the Decline of the Mother Tongue.

First, let's cut through the euphemism and political correctness and speak bluntly. The only reason why this has gone mainstream is because the standards of Mandarin has fallen, and fewer people are speaking Mandarin, and MOE has changed the way Mandarin will be taught, and this has worried the Sinophones/Sinophiles Singaporeans.

So it is not ALL Mother Tongues. Just Mandarin. Right?

Which is strange because years back when Mandarin was promoted and dialects were "ideologically persecuted" (my perspective), the argument was that dialects were the True Mother Tongue of the various Chinese Clans. And Mandarin was just a synthetic synthesis of the dialects at best, and so does not qualify as a natural Mother Tongue (as in no community had a tradition of speaking Mandarin).

But that was then, and this is Singapore 2B (Singapore To Be), not the Singapore That Was, or "How we used to argue, bicker, and complaint without effect".

The point is, there are probably some (or many) common issues for why Mother Tongues are declining, but some (like whether Mandarin is even a "True" Mother Tongue) are specific to each community.

This post will concern itself only with issues specific to the issue of Mandarin as it is declining in Singapore.

Or is it?

I'll leave the speculation as to the effect of official policy (MOE's policy on the teaching of Mandarin) to those with better information and knowledge.

What I am more interested in are the social factors. Why would young Chinese Singaporeans have lower standards of Mandarin?

One suggestion is technology. A Chinese teacher (as in one who teaches Mandarin) said that she was appalled by the SMSes she got from her students. It was in Mandarin, but homophones were used instead of actual, correct words. The question of course is whether these homophones were used for convenience, or used incorrectly (i.e. the sender thought these were the actual characters rather than homophones)?

The problem of course is that used frequently, it becomes habitual and accepted and eventually may displace the correct word. For example, in the preceding sentence i typed "of cos" in the first place before correcting myself.

But that is an ambiguous anecdote at best. Technology as a limiting factor? Sure there are Chinese language websites and social networking technology that allows the use of Chinese characters, but for the most part websites and scientific websites are in English. English is the language of commerce, science, technology and maybe even global transactions.

Example: your plane is landing in Shanghai. Does the pilot speak to the control tower in English? Or Mandarin? Does the Shanghai Air Traffic Controller speak to the pilots in Mandarin?

[Editorial comment: I heard from a pilot that the ATC speaks English to the international flights and Putonghua to the domestic airlines.]

A case can be made that your horizon is broadened with English more than Mandarin.

BUT, a case can also be made that your horizons are even further broadened if you know BOTH English and Mandarin.

But if you have limited resources (i.e. time) to learn languages, that is if it is an "either-or" situation, should you choose English, or Mandarin?

Another suggestion is Desirability. How desirable is it to be a Sinophone?

Well, there is cultural pride. One commenter on a forum writer's letter to the press about how he does not speak his MT, wrote: "You need to know your mother tongue."

He did not explain why it was a "need". It seemed that it was a given.

And here we get to the crux of the matter. This whole "crisis" of the Mother Tongue is predicated on the premise that there is a NEED to maintain the standards of Chinese (- Oops! I mean Mother Tongue! Oh screw it! I mean Chinese!)

There is an unspoken ethnocentrism? Chauvinism/Ethno-chauvinism? Racial Pride?

To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with pride in one's in-group, be it a race, sub-culture, or nationality. It serves to bond socially, and unite communally, foster group identity, encourage in-group altruism, advances group members' interest, and opens up resources to group members.

Nothing inherently wrong with it.

We just need to understand that it is something that we respond viscerally. Again, nothing wrong with it. But we need to be aware of it and understand that while we want it, we can't explain why we do. We can rationalise it, but it is an emotional, visceral thing.

And so Chinese Singaporeans today face a dilemma, a conundrum, conflicting emotions and needs, a contradiction of wants because if they are good in Mandarin, they may become closer in identity to Chinese Nationals. Or, Chinese Nationals in Singapore speak a "purer" Mandarin (Singapore Mandarin is influenced by English, Malay, and our culture), so does aspiring to a higher standard of Mandarin mean speaking more standard Mandarin? Like a Chinese National?

Because the problem is the Chinese National (or PRC) in Singapore, does not generally have a good image or reputation as a group. So the visceral response of Chinese Singaporeans is to NOT want to be identified with this group.

In fact there is desire, if not pressure, for the PRC to assimilate into Singapore society by picking up English, and speaking more English.

So we have the interesting contradictory situation of wanting good Mandarin speakers to speak more English, while we want Singaporeans who don't speak Mandarin well, to improve their Mandarin... to speak to... whom?

Each other? They converse well enough socially.

Speak to PRCs? In good Mandarin? But we want them to assimilate, not we accommodate their language limitations.

Which actually brings us to the conclusion that the Decline of Mandarin in Singapore is not an issue.

With enough PRCs in Singapore, Mandarin will NOT be in danger of declining.

But tell this to any Sinophile Singaporean and you will observe a visceral anger, an emotional response along the lines of "Chinese (even Singaporean Chinese) NEED to know how to speak Chinese!" (by which they mean Mandarin).

So it is a visceral, emotionally-charged issue. It's really not about preserving the culture, because Mandarin does not really preserve Chinese culture. One might argue that dialects, and myths, and food, and festivals, and customs and traditions keep culture alive and we do this despite (or in spite of) Mandarin and the standard of Mandarin in Singapore, whether rising or falling. In fact, we can even make a case that Chinese culture (in the form of customs and festivals) are less preserved in China, and their Mandarin are of a higher standard. Which shows that Mandarin and the preservation of Chinese Culture are NOT related.

Of course I may have set up a straw man argument here and Culture was NEVER the issue. But then, what is the issue? Singapore Chinese needs to be able to speak Good Mandarin? To whom?


El Lobo Loco said...

Tedious, overwrought comments deleted. Why do people confuse verbal diarrhea and graffiti with freedom of expression?

Daniel Webb said...

The author seems to seriously underestimate the importance of Mandarin in the modern world. While English is clearly still the most dominant language in the world at this time, Mandarin is definitely second placed and rapidly expanding. Mandarin is the worlds most spoken language by far, with well over a billion speakers. It is the second most used language on the internet after English, and the gap is closing fast. It is the official language of the most populous nation in the world. The PRC is also by many measures already the largest country in the world. The language is the lingua franca of a vast expatriate community of overseas Chinese dispersed throughout the world. Most importantly, all these Chinese speakers expect to be catered to in Chinese. Doing so presents phenomenal economic and cultural opportunities. For Singapore to neglect Chinese at this moment of its global ascendancy would be foolish in the extreme.