All the fuss over language (Wai Leng, 2009)


Here are series of previously published articles on FAMILYPLACE, might be useful to some. FamilyPlace is the predecessor of  Learning Beyond Schooling when our children were very young and reflected our thoughts as young(er parents).


As a child, I spoke Chinese at home – Hakka with my grandpa, Cantonese with my grandma, Mandarin with my mom (who made it compulsory for us to speak the language at home) and a combination of Cantonese, Mandarin and English with my dad, who was a school teacher and who was proficient in all the three main languages. Later, Jawi was added because he was trained to teach it!

Although my mom had wanted me to attend a Chinese school when I turned 7 (the reason being that “a Chinese must know Chinese!”- she still holds on to her belief, by the way), I was sent to attend a kebangsaan primary school near our house in Canning Garden, Ipoh because places in Chinese schools were very limited (even from those days!). I was quite happy in this small school of less than 200 pupils where the teachers knew every child by name. There was also quite a good racial mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians and others. The teachers were predominantly English-speaking Chinese though, but their English was excellent! Even though my year was the first year that they changed from English to BM in all the subjects except English, English remained the spoken language. So, our English was as good as our BM. I had many Malay friends to practise my Bahasa with, and I was proud that I was quite proficient in speaking it. One fond memory I have was having a chance to get a ride on one of those tough-looking army trucks (there were quite a number of army personnel having kids at that school). My best friend was an Indian whose father was a law lecturer. I learned to speak better English from all the time I spent playing and learning with her. So, schooling was quite a pleasant experience for me during my primary school years where the foundation of languages was formed and developed.

But my mom was not happy that my Chinese was neglected, so she got me Chinese tutors (retired Chinese school teachers) and from whom I learned the foundations and application of the Chinese language, right up to after graduating from secondary school and throughout my music teaching days! So that was how my mom got me to acquire Mandarin without having to attend Chinese school!

So, when I read about all the fuss about languages these days, from English, to BM to Chinese, I am rather perplexed! I don’t understand what all the fuss is about, really! I learnt from a young age (thanks to having cousins and relatives in Hong Kong, Australia, and England), that a language is as good as its command, and demand. Just look at Hong Kong, a former colony of the British Empire. 30-40 years ago, the language of instruction was NOT English, but Cantonese! Being in that country those days was a culture shock for me because everything, EVERYTHING, including Western cartoons, was in Cantonese! Even though I could speak Cantonese, my way of speaking it drew laughter from my relatives because I spoke it the Malaysian way! Needless to say, their English was atrocious! My cousins could not string a full sentence in English without making me bend over with laughter (this was my revenge for their laughing at my Cantonese!) Fortunately, going abroad to study in Australia and England, and finally working in Canada, changed all that for them. Now, we communicate more in English and are able to discuss deeper issues together because of our better command of the language.

After China took Hong Kong back from the British, there was a surge in learning Mandarin, and in the span of just 10 years, the people of Hong Kong managed to acquire the language. As for English, it is the number 1 most sought-after foreign language in China as millions and millions of its people scramble to learn the language which is the key to open the doors of businesses and career opportunities outside of China.

So, a nation that has the ability to adopt and adapt to global demands will thrive in this highly competitive world of ours. Hong Kong would have been wiped out long ago if not for the highly resilient and adaptable people. And where will our country be in 10, 20 or 30 years? Perhaps we would still be arguing and fighting over what language the nation should adopt in schools while the whole world whizzes past us in terms of economic advancement and educational achievements!

Chong Wai Leng

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