‘The Battle to speak Mandarin‘ (opinion piece in The Straits Times)
There is no doubt that Modern Standard Mandarin as the pu tong hua, the common language, of the Han Chinese in the mainland and the Diaspora; is a language of growing importance in the twenty-first century and that pragmatism calls for the person who wants to be relevant in this century to be able to speak and read, if not write, the language.
BUT to claim that this common language of the Han Chinese is the ‘mother tongue‘ by default, of every Singaporean of Han Chinese descent, is fallacious.
One’s mother tongue as defined by most academic linguists, would be the language one has learnt and spoken from birth. It is one’s native and first language. English is therefore my first and native language because I learnt it from birth and it is the language with which I have a masterly command. It has been the first language in my paternal family for two generations.
My late grandfather learnt and spoke English as a child in his adoptive British family. He also studied it as a school boy in an English-medium primary school and then Raffles Institution in then-British Singapore. He had been speaking English with his children and then grandchildren ever since until his death.
My late Nyonya grandmother also lived with her adoptive British family and as a result learnt the English language, on top of her native tongue, Bahasa Melayu Baba, with which she spoke to her children. Bahasa Melayu Baba is a Malay creole of the Peranakan people.
My father as a result learnt and spoke two languages from birth, English and Bahasa Melayu Baba. He married my mother, a Hinghwa, and because he did not know Mandarin spoke with her in English. I have never been exposed to Mandarin until I entered kindergarten at the age of five.
If ‘mother tongue’ were to be defined as my ethnic language, as a fourth-generation Singaporean Han Chinese of Peranakan-Hinghwa descent, my mother tongues would be Bahasa Melayu Baba and Hinghwa.
Why would it be the pu tong hua of Modern Standard Mandarin?
It also irritates me every time a fellow Singaporean of Han Chinese ethnicity accuses me of wanting to be a white man. Please do not be stupid and ignorantly so. Not every white man has English as his native language, let alone speak it: think of the Dutch, Spaniard, Norwegian, Danish, German, Swedish, Russian, Swiss, etc. I am a mono-literate anglophone because English is my mother tongue, full stop.
The same people would lift their noses at my speaking Mandarin poorly, calling me a ‘disgrace’ to the Chinese people: if one is Chinese, as their made-up adage goes, one should speak the language. But they would not say the same of a Singaporean of another ethnicity who chooses to learn Mandarin instead of their ethnic tongue as their second language in school. These Singaporeans are apparently not a disgrace to their ethnic tribe but are intelligent and wise for wanting to learn Mandarin.
Face-palm. Racial chauvinism?
Singaporeans should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether they want to learn a second language or not, and if so, to choose the language they wish to learn. It may be pragmatic to learn Mandarin due to China’s rising prominence in international politics but allow us to bear the costs of our own funeral if we choose otherwise.
We are a first-world society in the twenty-first century, are we not?