: Recently, Lee Kuan Yew launched a book about bilingualism and it got me thinking about my struggles with Chinese.
I was never a very good student in the Chinese language. In my day, Chinese was called CL1 (Chinese as a first language) and CL2 (Chinese as a second language) and if there was a CL9, I probably would have taken that. But I had to do CL2 at the very minimum.
My mother knew my weaknesses so I had Chinese tuition that started when I was Primary Three, and then it lasted till I was Secondary Four.
Every week, I would make my way to a home behind Lucky Plaza, where my friend lived, and the two of us would sit through one and half hours of Chinese tuition with my mother’s friend, who was a Chinese teacher by day.
I think it paid off because I never flunked Chinese throughout my Primary and Secondary school days. I even scored a B3 at O Levels, I think. Not too bad for someone who came from a school famous for poor Chinese.
But it was never a language I was fond of or used frequently. English was the primary medium at home and Chinese was just a subject to pass. By the time I reached the A Levels, I was just aiming to scrape through, to the dismay of my Chinese teacher in Hwa Chong.
Yes, I was in Hwa Chong Junior College. The most Chinese of Junior College of them all. I had happy times there but because I was in a Humanities class, we spoke in English mostly. The school was rich in Chinese culture but none of that really seeped into my life.
Once I left the school system, I gave my Chinese back. Like a library book you borrow, then return. I felt I no longer needed it so I didn’t bother. But two things changed in later life.
Firstly, I started speaking Mandarin in my late thirties because of work. One of my closest colleagues speaks only Mandarin and Cantonese and I had to dust off the old Chinese book in my brain and relearn it. After a few years of daily use, I can now hold a conversation with my friend/colleague about not just work stuff but also politics and current affairs. Sure, my Mandarin is not perfect, but he does not laugh at me when I flub and is always ready to tell me the words I wanted to know. Neither do I laugh at his English when he tries.
It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you are in an environment where a language has to be used daily, and you can use it imperfectly without self-consciousness.
Secondly, I had kids. You have no idea how that changes you linguistically. I realized that in order to be a good example to my children, I had to make an effort to learn Chinese again. They are growing up in a world where China is as important as the Western world and not having a strong footing in Chinese will hamper them in future. I may not be able to teach them the language like my wife can (she is effectively bilingual and used to take Chinese as a first language… I know, what did she see in this Jiak Kantang fellow, right?) but I will be able to show at least a good example by speaking it often.
I even started tweeting and writing Chinese in Weibo.com, the Twitter of China. It is a slow and painful process for me to read and write in Chinese there. It takes me twice as long to read stuff on 微薄 and even longer to write a simple sentence but it is good practice.
I even wrote a rare Chinese blog post on my blog, entitled 那些年, 有很多美好的回忆… which was about the Taiwan movie 《那些年, 我們一起追的女孩》You can read it over there if you like.
Don’t get me wrong. If you asked me what my Mother Tongue is, I will say Cantonese. I don’t buy the argument that dialects have to be sacrificed for Mandarin. But I am no longer anti-Chinese-language and I reached this conclusion because of practical reasons.
I reckon you can try to tell people they should develop a love for Chinese because that’s your culture blah blah blah, but you cannot love a language or a culture unless you have a reason to use it first. I grew to love English because I used it a lot. It was a necessity to ace English for school and for business. And now, I am growing to love Chinese too, because I have to use it or I wouldn’t be able to do my job.
Sure it took me more than 20 years to get to this thinking but better late than never, right?
With Chinese (Mandarin) topping the list of the world’s most popular languages (English is in 3rd place!), learning this language isn’t just for doing business in China. In fact, learning Chinese may actually change the way you perceive the world, as research has found that the language we speak not only reflects or expresses our thoughts, but also shapes the very thoughts we wish to express.