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Friday, October 07, 2005

State of Chinese

There've been a couple of students on attachment to the company recently. Currently, I'm working pretty closely with two of them on website matters. They're from a polytechnic (not saying which) and have taken a class in web design. There's also a graphic designer from Malaysia (not a student) who's attached to the company for a while.

The company has a few websites, and two of these are being revamped (so far). The students and the designer were tasked with conceptualising and implementing a new design for each of the two. One website is done by one student, the other is designed by the Malaysian designer and implemented by the other student.

Let me focus on the latter team, because that's the main point of this post. The Malaysian girl cannot speak Chinese, whereas the student is a guy who's more comfortable with Chinese. Therefore, that leaves me as the translator. Me -- the guy who scored C5 in "O" and "AO" Level Chinese. Fortunately, with my smattering of Chinese, I'm able to get her ideas across to him, and vice versa. And if I fail to do so, at least the design is on paper too, so he can refer to that.

But here's my beef: the student is a Singaporean (at least I think he is!) who's studied in Singapore all of this time. And Singapore is a land where English is still the language of business and most day-to-day affairs. So why in the world is his English so bad and his Chinese so "powerful"?

Mind you, the Malaysian designer's use of English is already pretty simple. No, I'm not belittling her, I'm just saying that it's not like she's using four-syllable words in hundred-word sentences. And she doesn't use overly design-technical words. Heck, I didn't study design, but I knew what she's saying. And I imagine that any school child would be able to understand her too.

He was so comfortable in using Chinese that he would use Chinese even in her presence. Meanwhile I would use English when replying to him so that she could at least follow along. But I felt bad for her. It definitely wasn't her fault for her to be excluded from the discussion just because we couldn't stick to one language that we all knew!

Finally, I put my foot down and told him point-blank to use English. He realised his error and used his broken English thereon... except for one moment when his English failed him. But there's nothing wrong there with the occasional lapses. There are times when my Chinese fails me and need someone to back me up.

Oh, it gets better. Later, I found out that he also spells "button" as "b-u-t-t-o-m"! No, it wasn't a typo, because he spelled it that way twice and didn't even know it was wrong until I pointed it out. WTF??? This is below primary school-standard!

On one hand, I shouldn't be surprised by any of this. After (30+?) years of "Speak Mandarin" campaigns, our Chinese youths would rather speak Chinese/Mandarin than English. The trend was already picking up steam when I was in school, which was slightly less than 15 years ago. I had classmates who preferred speaking Chinese over English, and I was from a school where Chinese is treated as a foreign language!

Chinese is so prevalent today that I think it has made Singaporean society the worse for it. Yes, China is a huge market, and will remain a huge market. But one shouldn't discount India too, where -- surprise! -- they speak English. And let's not forget the other powerhouse, the United States of America, which -- surprise! -- will not give a rat's ass about you if you can't speak English.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any general realisation about this language breakdown. If there is, it's been restricted to coffee shop talk, not government dialogues, where it should matter. Something must be done to re-elevate English to its rightful position. I don't care if you have to use Singlish. Chances are, between the local lingo and legitimate English words, any native English speaker will be able to figure out what you're saying. But at least Singlish is closer to English, and from there, Singapore can claw its way back to the predominant use of English.

Note: I'm not an English chauvinist. Is there even such a person? All I'm saying is that, given the nature of the world today and for the foreseeable future, our youths should speak and practise their English. Otherwise, we may end up with a society that is fragmented by the use of different languages. And then it'll be the 1960s all over again.


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Anonymous said...

Singaporeans' Chinese/Mandarin (both written and oral) are considered 'half-past-six' by the PRCs and Taiwanese. So it's a case of us getting screwed East and West. Neither here nor there.


Anonymous said...

I wish you had brought up more than just this one example to substantiate your case.

Just look at the number of English versus Chinese singaporean blogs and I conclude it is simply not the case that "Chinese is so prevalent today".

If you are concerned about English language breakdown, I don't think you should pinpoint Chinese as the reason just based on your one experience who someone who is uncomfortable with English. There is little, if any, improvement in Chinese standards over the years. Really, it is a case of neither here nor there.

Yuhui said...

Anonymous: yeah, it's one example, but I think it's representative of the current state of affairs given my other unrecorded experiences.

Number of blogs is not representative, because the number of Singaporean bloggers is a very small number. 10% of the population is an optimistic number already.

The quality of Chinese is not my complaint. That's is another issue entirely.

Tym said...

English teachers at every level have been grumbling about the allegedly falling standards of English language usage for years now. Of course, it doesn't help that some of these English language teachers don't, er, speak good English themselves ;)

As for the prevalence of the Chinese language, let's not forget that the majority of the population has been forced to take Mandarin as their mother tongue language (subordinating the social relevance of other Chinese languages/dialects). It's not just the rise of China or what have you.

Anonymous > I think Yuhui's shock is because this admittedly "one experience" is with an individual who has probably been through an English-language education system, yet his ability to function in English seems extremely limited. So it's probably a case of, "Wow, if one person is this bad, are there others like him out there? Is all this English language-medium instruction doing any good?"

Yee-wei Chai said...

Yo dude, your statement of "Chinese is so prevalent today that I think it has made Singaporean society the worse for it." is so wrong man. Chinese/Mandarin standard in Singapore is a joke, and it should be construed as "Sing-darin" as opposed to mandarin. And truth be told, the 20 years of "Speak Chinese" Campaign is a glorious failure. I have written to ST about what i thought is the real bleak situation of Chinese standards in Singapore as opposed to the bright and cheerful article they published in ST couple weeks ago. Here's the link.

I think in your experience here, it is just a case of blown up proportions of a person who is insensitive to his colleague. You mentioned that it shld be ok for that guy to use his broken english to communicate, just as sometimes u need pple to back u up in your chinese dept. But he chose to use mandarin (subconsciously) cos he is more comfortable with it. Just like English should be your "default" language, Mandarin is his. He might just need a reminder to be sensitive to his malaysian counterpart who doesn't understand his chinese.

His behavior does not represent how the trend of Singapore is trying to place more emphasis on Mandarin speaking.

Anonymous said...

It is widely reported that the use of Chinese is falling among the young. It has been the trend that more kids are coming from English-speaking families than before and are having problems learning Chinese. Remember all the moves by MOE to make Chinese more appealing to students? Your observation that "After (30+?) years of 'Speak Mandarin' campaigns, our Chinese youths would rather speak Chinese/Mandarin than English." seems to be quite misguided. English doesn't need to be re-elevated.

Anonymous said...

you "one bamboo capsize the whole boat"... haha..

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this one. I've long rallied for a more cohesive approach to a single language rather than a disjointed approach to two at the same time- at best, it leads us to a jack of all trades, master of none mentality.

That said, I am bilingual (I took french at O and AO levels) and thoroughly resent people constantly commenting on my inability to order a bowl of noodles in mandarin just because I am ethnically chinese. Bet they couldn't get by in France.

ketsugi said...

There is absolutely no reason why we should not just ditch Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and encourage our students to learn proper English instead of trying to force two vastly different languages down their throats from the moment they enter school.

at82 said...

I bet this guy come from a neighbourhood school. Please that note i have nothing against neighbourhood schools.

This is the trend i have noticed. In the "better" schools, English is the common language. However in neighbour school the common language for Singaporean Chinese students are overwhelming chinese. This probably have to do with their family background as most heartlanders still speak chinese at home. The same is true for Malays students in neighbourhood schools. They mostly speak malay when they are in school.

With the increase in access to higher education in Singapore, more and more of the heartlanders are now able to go to polys and unis. That is why you they seem to be more comfortable in Chinese than English.

Moreover, the overall trend is that the Chinese langauage ability of Singaporeans are going down. That is a fact that is confirmed by MOE. So it don't think that is true that Singaporeans are becoming more Chinese.

at82 said...

I guess all in all this signify the english/chinese divide in Singapore. Just as many English speaking Singaporeans resent the fact they were being forced to learn Chinese, many Chinese speaking Singaporeans lament the fact that their language is being marginalised and they are looked down upon by English speaking "elites".

Have a look here if you wanted to see this from the perspective of the Chinese speaking Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

The sad part about Singaporeans is that most of them can neither speak English nor Chinese correctly. A person who has a good command of Chinese(not just being able to speak, but able to read, write and appreciate the deep cultural aspects of it) is truly worth respecting. It is sad when what is considered "elite" in Singapore involves mainly Chinese Singaporeans who can barely speak Chinese. At the same time, their English is pathetic. I say pathetic because if you sent these folks overseas to an English speaking country like the US for instance, most people there will have no idea what these Singaporean "English speakers" are talking about. "English-speaking" Singaporeans in places like the US are in no better shape than PRCs or Taiwanese in terms of communication. In many cases, it's actually easier to comprehend PRCs and Taiwanese since after a while, they speak English the right way as opposed to the Singaporean brand of "English". Singaporeans facing such situations often crawl back to their "asian psychological conclave", claiming that they are from an asian country, with an asian mentality etc. so it's hard to integrate into a foreign English speaking culture. These are the same people who look down on Chinese speaking Singaporeans when living in Singapore. At least the PRCs and Taiwanese speak their native language well and a lot of them are proud of their heritage. I wouldn't say the same for Singaporeans who can barely speak or write any language properly.

Unknown said...

It's interesting that you've encountered a Singaporean who's amazingly bad with his English; while I'm surrounded by colleagues who are Chinese but couldn't manage a proper sentence in Mandarin.

My guess is, after all this while of trying to manage a bilingual society, Singaporeans have finally seen the predicted disaster - basically all could understand both, but realistically none could master both.

Anonymous said...

We have Singlish.
We also have Singese.

In fact, a lot of the northern chinese (HK, TW, China) are very surprised that we can speak Mandarin at all!!


ruz~* said...

i came from a 'better' school, my friends were equally comfortable with whatever "channel" they're with (Ch 5, Ch 8 or Suria) (i didn't have any Indian friends back then)

Wouldnt what language you use to converse in depend on the company you're in? If you're with a bunch of chinese ppl, naturally you'll just speak in Chinese or Singese or whatever it is you folks call it; and even tho my ma lai ren is not very the powderful i do tend to speak Malay (or Manglish) when with malay friends. when everyone's around, anything goes

Anonymous said...

Language as a form of communication must first be FUNCTIONAL. And then you can progress onto being generally accepted and considered correct.

What do I mean? When you learn a foreign language, e.g. Spanish, you start being totally unable to string a sentence together properly, but yet a spanish speaking individual understands you, although with some amount of difficulty.

Its just a matter of targetting functionality in two languages and then moving onto higher standards when possible.

Though this story sounds a little bit strange.

Anonymous said...

as u said, he speaks english, albeit broken english at that.. but he sticks to mandarin coz he's more comfortable in it.. suppose he just needs to be more smart & sensitive and realise that in work, english is the common language, and that his closet colleague doesn't understand mandarin..

if u want to comment about the erosion of english usage among singaporeans, what about the other group of people who only know english and NOT mandarin?

i shuttle between singapore and shanghai and a lot of my colleagues there are very surprised that i can speak, read and write mandarin well.. then what does this means?

Anonymous said...

According to the your post, to protect racial harmony and to prevent racial riots we should perform lingual genocide and make everyone speak English. That makes perfect sense.

Hey let's apply that on a global scale and viola! World peace!

putitthisway said...

Saw this link off tomorrow and I would say that I did not like the paragraph that I read. It is only after reading the entire entry that I realised that the problem here is not with Chinese, bad english is the main gripe here but it took a while to sink in. Seems like the poor chap's command of english is quite bad and it could also be a matter of self-confidence and in this case, a lacking of it. I always believe and try as much as possible to practice it, that is, if you want to learn a language, speak it, write it, think in it and most importantly respect it by using it properly.

ketsugi said...

Beng, you said: "It's interesting that you've encountered a Singaporean who's amazingly bad with his English; while I'm surrounded by colleagues who are Chinese but couldn't manage a proper sentence in Mandarin."

This really isn't the issue. I'm a Singaporean Chinese whose grasp of Mandarin is subpar at best. But at least I know I am thoroughly fluent in one major language.

The problem with most Singaporeans is that they speak neither Chinese nor English fluently. They utilise a kind of half-baked version of each, and most of the time speak in Singlish which I suppose can be considered something of a hybrid.

I do not know if the same applies for the Malay and Tamil-speaking communities, though.

The real issue as I see it is forcing us to learn two different languages (with the result that most of us excel at neither) instead of trying to concentrate on just one language and doing that one well.

Anonymous said...

"There is absolutely no reason why we should not just ditch Chinese, Malay and Tamil, and encourage our students to learn proper English instead of trying to force two vastly different languages down their throats from the moment they enter school."

You can say the same for social studies, art, music, history, geography, literature and other subjects. Why stuff these subjects down their throats?

We are situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Indian and Chinese economies are increasingly important. You can't just wave off the importance of learning these languages.

And besides, the backlash from society will probably be huge, perhaps greater than that of the casino debate.

I don't know where you guys work but being able to communicate with one another and being fluent in the language is not exactly the same. Not all jobs require impeccable English.

Anonymous said...

i don't really agree with you, that mandarin is prevalent. within my ranks, i've come across so many people who are chinese and cannot speak chinese to save their heads.

i think it really depends on which context we look at lah. in singapore, the government adopts a bi-lingual education approach. but there are bound to be peopl who are the extreme ends of the pole, and people who are in between.

ultimately, i think you over-generalised things lah. though i must say, a polytechnic student not being able to speak english at least conversationally kinda shows that whatever education he went through has gone to nought.

Anonymous said...

The Report of the Remaking Singapore Committee, Pg28:

[……Language Competencies. Students should be given more flexibility to choose as a second language one that they either believe is beneficial to them in future, or are more confident of mastering……]

Although our government had rejected the above suggestion, I think we should take note of the event. The following is my view.

Bilingual Policy & Give & Take Spirit at Risk

It is a well known fact that in multi-racial Singapore, if all races are to insist on their constitutional or democratic rights, and request for fair and equal treatment for their languages, then there will be no bilingual policy and English as common language. Fortunately, all races are pragmatic to accept the bilingual policy package which ensures English as first language, and mother tongue as second language.

Therefore no ethnic languages will be marginalised or overtaken by other languages (such as English) under the (un-spoken) guarantee of bilingual policy. This language policy is similar to our tripartite policy in economic development (i.e. Labour Union, Employers and Government are to work together as partners). Both policies are important because they have set the practical frameworks for Singaporeans to maintain the spirit of “give and take” in resolving sensitive and difficult issues in our multi-racial society.

However, for bilingual policy, there is an un-tested assumption, that is, when all Singaporeans are English educated under the policy (which our young do since 1987), we will not resort to “winner take it all” approach in future to abandon or alter the mother tongue requirement in bilingual policy. Instead, we will follow our non-English speaking fore-fathers’ spirit to embrace, tolerate and accept the policy (Ref1*); or even making bilingualism as a cultural tradition and pass it on to future generations.

Unfortunately, from the suggestion by the Remaking Singapore Committee, which stated that, “Students should be given more flexibility to choose as a second language one that they either believe is beneficial to them in future, or are more confident of mastering” (Ref2*); it is in fact campaigning for a change of bilingual policy which guarantee mother tongue as second language.

This is in tune with the demand of SOME English speaking Singaporeans (Ref3*) for the rights to choose second language. Hence, it is clear that these people are more likely to insist on their rights than considering the give and take spirit that our country has built.

Although there is nothing wrong with this insistence, as we are in a democratic country that people can insist on their democratic rights, but if these English speaking Singaporeans (Ref4*) can insist on their rights, so too are all races.

Therefore, if we were to abandon bilingual policy which requires all students to study mother tongue as second language (and with an acceptable standard), there will no longer be any basis for all races to “give and take” in language issue. They will have no choice but forced to defend their own language rights and to ensure the survival of their languages through all constitutional and democratic means.

This will definitely lead us to nowhere as various rights will clash (Ref5*). So, in language issue, the spirit of give and take should be observed, practiced and respected by all races, including the (growing population of) English speaking Singaporeans and the members of Remaking Singapore Committee.

Thus, instead of trying to abandon or alter our bilingual policy, we should embrace and defend it.




They could have done otherwise if they chose to insist on their democratic rights?



The Report of the Remaking Singapore Committee, Pg28:

[……Language Competencies. Students should be given more flexibility to choose as a second language one that they either believe is beneficial to them in future, or are more confident of mastering……]


Please take note that, we are talking about SOME English speaking Singaporeans, not ALL English speaking Singaporeans. In other words, until now, besides treasuring one’s own ethnic languages, a lot of English speaking Singaporeans can still understand and support the spirit of give and take embedded in our Bilingual Policy.


That is the “SOME English speaking Singaporeans” we mentioned in Note 3.


Of course, clashes of different rights are common in any democratic country, young Singaporeans may prefer to use this “democratic clash mechanism” and believe it is a better way to resolve issues in multi-racial Singapore? But I think the give and take spirit and the out-of-bounds (OB) markers approach are still needed in some areas. Trying to use rights and winner take it all approach to “force out or manage to marginalise” others’ rights in language (or religion) should not be allowed in Singapore. Our non-English speaking fore-fathers have not done this, and we should not do it either.

Anonymous said...

Yuhui, if you have white friends that are not from English-speaking countries, e-mail them you views & see what they have to say. If you can meet them even better, look into their eyes when you tell them your views.

Anonymous said...

In response to the earlier comment:

"I say pathetic because if you sent these folks overseas to an English speaking country like the US for instance, most people there will have no idea what these Singaporean "English speakers" are talking about. "English-speaking" Singaporeans in places like the US are in no better shape than PRCs or Taiwanese in terms of communication."

If this is what you think,commentor, then your mentality is truly flawed. I speak as a Singaporean currently studying in the UK in a community filled with Singaporeans who are at the very forefront of their courses- most notably, for the purposes of this discussion, law, a field whose very nature requires fluency in the English language.

Limit your flawed views to save yourself further embarassment.

Anonymous said...

poor you. you are so colonialised and enslaved by the Anglophiles. so, what are you exactly? why are you so proud that you speak English? Shouldnt you be speaking Mandarin if you are Chinese? have they not wiped out your culture nearly enough already? Mind you, I am no Chinese chauvinist, but your attitude and arrogrance reeks of one that will betray his/her own culture.

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