Debunking myths in revitalising Chinese languages
In the past few weeks, there have been various calls (including a letter to Today’s Voices and an editorial in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao) for Chinese languages other than Mandarin to be given a more prominent space in the public sphere in Singapore. The Prime Minister’s Office also weighed in on the issue by responding to Zaobao’s editorial.
Calls to revitalise Chinese languages are not new and have, indeed, surfaced on occasion since the shift towards English and Mandarin became obvious to the public. However, the debate has often involved assumptions and gross simplifications that seem to perpetuate popular myths regarding language in practice and identity.
HOW MANY LANGUAGES CAN ONE LEARN?
A common view is that the average person has a limited mind that is incapable of learning and handling more than two languages. It is true that adult learners do find it more difficult to acquire new languages and attain a high level of proficiency in them.
It is this view that seems to be translated into our education policy, under which only students who do well enough in school are allowed to learn a third language.
However, one’s ability to acquire multiple languages is particularly contingent on one’s social environment, exposure to and constant use of these languages; and less so a matter of IQ and academic proclivity.
There is no evidence to suggest exposure to more than two languages leads to a confounding of one’s linguistic abilities. In the same vein, it is not true that the use of Chinese languages — or what most Singaporeans would call dialects — in the home environment will necessarily impede one’s learning of Mandarin.
How then do we account for the situation in a society such as Hong Kong, where students face difficulties acquiring English and Mandarin? For one, Hong Kong’s sociolinguistic milieu is hardly comparable with Singapore’s. Hong Kong has had a stable population of 90 per cent ethnic Chinese, who have been almost homogeneously Cantonese-speaking throughout its history.
Cantonese has developed as a strong marker of Hong Kong’s identity and has been preponderant in all social domains, including its bureaucracy, media and family life. Hong Kong’s struggles with English and Mandarin are less a result of trying to teach students three languages, but rather due to the pre-existing dominance of Cantonese in all spheres of life.