I’ve left for Nepal this morning. For updates, please check out my Facebook fan page, Knapsack Treks.
当兵的时候，我最想家了。生命中的这个阶段也是我最爱过春节的时候。春节来临时总会特别紧张。那时的我非常害怕会不会因什么事故得留在军营里过年。不管是多么不美满的家，到了过年多少都会散发一点温暖。忙碌了一整年，终于可以坐下来和久违了的亲朋好友进餐，喝酒，聊天， 其实是一种很大的享受。可是在谈笑当中，单身或”未生”的人，往往会遭到”慰问”。本地的一名女记者 Sumiko Tan 曾说过她讨厌过年是因为长辈们总是问她何时出嫁。今天的 Sumiko Tan 已经出嫁了。解决了一个问题，可是不知道她对过年是否依然畏惧。
东不成，西不就. That’s how I described Singapore’s general population in an online discussion forum more than 10 years ago. Many supporters of the establishment proudly disagreed. Fast forward to the present. We have now reached a “new normal”, an age of awakening and even the most ardent supporters of the establishment are now questioning whether our bilingual policies have really worked.
From the start, I need to declare that I fully support bilingualism and I believe that it’s more because we have done something wrong that has caused the system to fail. It’s not because it’s humanly impossible to read and write in two languages. Yet, in Singapore today, English/Chinese bilingualism is a real disappointment for educators who care and dare to admit it.
I am equally sad not just because of the failure of English/Chinese bilingualism, but the policies aimed at promoting bilingualism have been executed without enough sincerity, sensitivity and knowledge on the ground.
Rewind to my army days in the early 80s. Until then, I knew very little Hokkien and it was the army that taught me most of the Hokkien I know now. But back in those days, I hated to speak Hokkien because first of all, I was not fluent in it and secondly, Hokkien is the language of the Hokkien peng – not the A Level commanders. Very often, when I gave my orders or instructions in English, the response was “gong tng nang way la.” or “speak Chinese Language lah”.
Some of these Hokkien peng must have thought that I was a “potato eater” (“banana”). But I figured that proper Mandarin (the type I learned in school) would have been as alien a language to them as English was.
“Auntie, nai cha yi bei (奶茶一杯).”
I’ve tried saying the above at coffeeshops all over Singapore and apart from mainland Chinese uncles and aunties who readily understood what nai cha was, the Singaporeans and Malaysians often had to pause a while before shooting back a question:
Some were even completely clueless. And since the speak Mandarin campaign started, broken Mandarin replaced Hokkien and other dialects in the markets, hawker centres and coffeeshops. Let’s face it. Mandarin is not an easy language to speak properly. Chinese is also not an easy language to write properly. For many years, the less educated folks in Singapore have used Chinese dialects to express themselves. Then, dialects were suddenly banned from TV and radio in the early 80s. The Hokkien pengs (not just the soldiers), were suddenly thrown into the deep end.
“You want eat?”
That’s someone with no proper training in English trying to communicate in English by stringing together a few words that he knows. In a similar way, Singaporeans who were not very well-educated strung their English and Chinese words together. In order to communicate with them, students and other still in their formative years spoke the same “languages” – broken English, broken Mandarin or an awful mixture of both with hundreds of mispronounced words.
In order to pass their exams, the students learned their languages well. But there were few settings in which they could make use of their textbook English and Chinese. In the end, proper English and Mandarin got abandoned once the exams didn’t require them. Worse than that, people have noticed that even the highest office in the land does not require a good command of one’s “Mother Tongue”. At least English was still useful after graduation. Chinese or rather broken Mandarin, was only useful at the marketplace and food centres.
In no time, a lot of the proper “Mother Tongue” that the students acquired in school is lost. Nobody needs to like training, but training is good for you. It simply isn’t true that the majority of people won’t be able to master more than one language no matter how much they try. The sad problem is that after all the training and good grades for Chinese that the students scored in exams, the language is lost, wasting all the time, effort and money. Many of us who studied two languages were effectively bilingual during our student days.
Look at the students from China who have lived overseas and mastered the English language. Do they ever lose their Chinese? Look at some of the lao wai who study Chinese at their own time. Aren’t many of them more bilingual than we are even though they have no good Chinese grades to show off? Why can’t we keep our Chinese after we’ve stopped learning it in school? The answer is simple – Chinese or rather proper Chinese, has not been kept alive in our daily activities. Living Mandarin/Chinese is broken Mandarin/Chinese. To a certain extent, that applies to English too.
But there is one important difference. Just take a look at the army. In the past, the “living English” in army camps was dictated by sergeants and enciks who didn’t get past secondary school. But the army didn’t allow them to continue to dictate the English standards in the army. They had to upgrade themselves or become irrelevant. Today’s routine orders are written so much more grammatically than those during my time.
More and more children have parents who speak English at home. Sometimes, it’s not even proper English. Nevertheless, proper English is in far less danger of being forgotten. Proper English is living English in many walks of life in Singapore. In contrast, living Mandarin only works in the hawker centres, taxis, markets. And it’s often not even proper Mandarin.
What on earth is “Uncle 湾左，Uncle 湾右”?
“直走” is go straight. What on earth is “走直”?
People who speak proper Mandarin would be laughing at us. The problem is, we have allowed the Hokkien pengs who have suddenly had to switch from Hokkien to Mandarin, to dictate the standard of living Mandarin in Singapore. That is the root cause of the whole problem – not some universal human disability.