Who’s afraid of Mandarin?

A few months ago, after a dinner meeting with college friends, I told my husband that my friend, Chia Lih, sent her twin 4-year old daughters to private Chinese language classes. Both her and husband communicate with the girls in English because their mandarin skills leave much to be desired. Chia Lih recounted that initially the girls had to be dragged screaming and kicking to class. They hated it because the entire lesson was conducted in mandarin. Thank God they’ve settled down nicely now. The girls can at least speak a smattering of mandarin.

June, who has a 8-yr old girl and a 5-yr old son, is tempted to do the same, especially after Chia Lih highly recommended the class. June and her family returned to Singapore early this year after spending nearly 6 years in Bangkok. Over there, the kids studied in the British international school and they had mandarin tuition once a week. With limited exposure to the language, the kids could only speak conversational mandarin. Back in Singapore, June enrolled the kids into local schools. Her daughter is in primary/elementary school where she had to attend Mandarin class as it was considered her mother tongue. She absolutely hates it since she can’t understand what the hell the teacher is saying, and clamoring to return to Bangkok.

June is at a lost on how to guide her daughter since her mandarin skill is barely manageable, and her husband’s a white American who can’t help at all. When it comes to school tests, June can only advise her to memorize the minimal so that a pass is sufficient. It has also come to a point when June is considering writing to the Ministry of Education to request for her daughter to switch from studying mandarin to Spanish or French. Apparently if one of the parents is of a different race, that is possible.

The thing is the language problem is something the plagues a lot of local Chinese kids. In fact many kids don’t even have mastery of any languages, and this is because the parents themselves lack it. I think the reason is because the early Chinese migrants came to Singapore speaking their real mother tongue, which wasn’t Mandarin, but their respective Chinese dialects. Even though Chinese schools were set up later, but few people were educated and even they were more comfortable speaking in their own dialects. After Singapore gained independence in the 1960’s, the government clamped down on the use of the dialects among the Chinese, and made Mandarin one of the 4 national languages, as a mean to unify them in one language. However, in almost all schools, English became the teaching medium because it’s regarded as the communication language between the different races and also to attract western companies to set up shops here. But the problem is it wasn’t and still isn’t our mother tongue, and a pidgin English was created called ‘Singlish’ which is basically mixing dialects and malay into English. Same for Mandarin, almost all Chinese kids take it for their mother tongue classes in schools, but it’s also not spoken in the proper way but mixed with dialects and English. The crux of the problem is languages cannot be learned strictly within the confines of a classroom but has to be used constantly to master it, especially in the family or social setting. When parents can’t speak either English or Mandarin fluently because of the language legacy issues here but use the pidgin languages at home, their kids pick them up too. You need hell of a lot of conscious effort to speak in the proper way.

In many families, you’ll hear Singlish being spoken at home and as a result kids usually have a poor grasp of Mandarin, particularly writing. So there’re numerous parents who then resort to engaging mandarin tuition teachers or sending the kids to mandarin classes. My husband is adamant that baby Alex should not be fearful of mandarin. He thinks that it’s absolutely important for him to be effectively bilingual, especially with the growing importance of China. Yet he also wants to avoid sending Alex for tuition, though he’s all for classes that strengthen the basic foundations of languages, maths and science, like that offered by the Kumon School. So he delegated the task of speaking and teaching baby, Mandarin, to me, since I took it, together with English, as a first language in high school (most students take it as a second language) whereas he had never studied it. (He studied Malay instead.)

Truth be told, my mandarin skill is not really great, especially when it comes to writing, in fact it sucks big time!! Like most Singaporean Chinese, I rarely write in mandarin and over the years, the writing skill deteriorated rapidly. Seriously, the number of characters I know how to write is likely to be pathetic. I definitely have to rely on the dictionary even when writing short sentences. I can read relatively well; in fact I can even read traditional Chinese characters. As for speaking it, can’t say I’m very good at it but at least it’s intermediate level. I know it’s embarrassing but my husband has to advise me to read up Chinese news and books to brush up on my mandarin skill. He even suggested I write or translate one of my posts into mandarin to practice writing. It’s something to mull about. Maybe a very short post which I hope it won’t end up like a elementary school piece.

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