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李慧玲 : Lee Huay Leng

English version

Translated by Francis Lim Khek Gee, with additional translation by Tan Siok Siok


我们回到上海时,赶紧把在汕头买的潮语配音《白雪公主》卡通片拿出来播放,听着皇后用潮州话问那镜子:“魔镜,魔镜,世界上那个芝娘最美丽?”全家人都被逗乐了。

小时候由外婆照顾、有点潮州话基础,但后来疏于应用的表弟这次跟我一起到潮汕去。才几天在潮汕浸濡,他的潮州话大有进步。表弟比我小了将近12岁。我哥问他现在知不知道“厕所”潮州话怎么讲,他可以字正腔圆的说出。换作以前,他一定用“toilet”取代。表弟说,在岛国的经验里,潮州话是老人、至少是成年人的语言。没有想到在潮州,碰到三岁的小孩,原来都是说潮州话的。它就像在岛国英语会从孩子的口里源源不断的流出来一样,词汇丰富,表述生动。

我不知道从哪年开始,我们日常的语言有了年龄之分,甚至有阶级之分。但是我确实经常听到这样的说法,不是关于方言的——方言已经不在家长选择的语言之列了。是关于孩子入学前,一些会讲华语的祖父祖母在家跟他们华语,有的父母也跟孩子讲华语,而小孩上了学跟其他同学接触,说的都是英语,回到家跟兄弟姐妹讲的也是英语。

在他们的概念里,华语成了老年人(至少是部分成年人)的语言,平时跟自己同辈的人说话,正常还是用英语的。

这样对不对,好不好?家里该讲什么语言?父母分别讲英语和华语,还是全都讲一种语言?孩子的语言学习是个费力的工程,家长要趁早尽心怎样的规划?

回去祖父和外婆的潮汕老家,不同的空间,让人有不同的体悟。我观察那里碰到的店员、路上的行人、亲戚的小孩。除非是外省来的人,否则人们彼此交谈,都是用潮州话。我心里纳闷,他们为什么不用普通话?或者,他们也应该知道英语的市场价值有多重要吧?为什么亲戚似乎一点不急于教小孩英语?我问了一下,孩子学英语吗?父母都说等入了学,课堂老师会教。

后来我问在村里当小学华文老师的长辈,他说,老师们也还在学英文,学了就教孩子。谈起来,似乎也都不很当真。我分辨不出那是按照我们的标准看时,一种眼界不够开阔,目光不够长远的表现,又或者是一种在完全不同的国情里的自信和自得。我的潮汕亲戚没有想要做世界第一,或者全国第一,只想在原来的土地上继续生活。而本事和他们的语言是没有关系的——至少我感觉他们是这样的思维方式。还有一点:他们不要求我们,但是自己家里的孩子如果不会说潮汕话,对他们来说是比较难接受的。

我参考着他们的方式,想象如果我也有小孩,到底要怎么教育他们,用什么语言教育他们。我在北京的一个朋友,牛津大学回来的,但我见她跟两岁的孩子一句英语不说,都只有普通话,甚至逗着让孩子学给我们听听幼儿园里山西人的口音。我问她时,她一副不着急的样子,觉得英语以后自然是会的。

回到岛国,完全是另一个环境,另一种思维。有用和没有用,有多少用处,是一个总在思索求生存的国家衡量人和事情的标准?我读过历史,不怀疑国力强大能使某一种语言和文化地位攀升,识时务者自然要紧跟其后。有时也想到路易十四时代,法文如何盛行。但是如果换一个方式思考,语文的学习,不是因为它的现实价值,采用哪一种方法比较理想,也就同样不是关键了。孩子小时,大人教他们一种不一定能与全世界对话的语言,为的是那是属于他们自己文化与传统的一部分——这样的教育,着重自我面对的态度,是一种自我尊重和对原则的坚持。这不重要吗?

而后,再去想实用价值和教授的方法的问题。


李慧玲,新闻工作者,曾经担任《联合早报》驻香港、北京记者。也是公民团体圆切线创社社员。

Kult-Cov-trust

As soon as we got back to Shanghai, we played back the dubbed in Teochew version of “Snow White”, which we bought in Shantou. The whole family was tickled pink when we heard the Queen asked the Magic Mirror, in Teochew: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?”

With me on this trip to Chaoshan was my cousin, who knows some Teochew as Grandmother brought him up, but thereafter he has little use for the language. After just a few days of immersion in Chaoshan, his Teochew improved greatly. He is almost 12 years my junior. When my brother asked him if he knew how to say “toilet” in Teochew, he was able to answer with precision. In the past, he would have used the English word “toilet”. My cousin said, in the Singaporean context, Teochew is a language of the elderly, or at least the grown-ups. He was surprised to find that in Chaozhou, even three-year olds speak Teochew. It is like the fluent English pouring forth from children in Singapore, rich in vocabulary and vivid in expression.

I am not sure when the languages we use daily started taking on age, and even class distinctions. However, I have often heard it said—not concerning the use of dialects, as they are no longer a language option for parents—that before the children enter school, some grandparents who know Mandarin will speak to them in Mandarin. Some parents might also speak to them in Mandarin. But once they start interacting with their schoolmates, speaking only English, they end up speaking English to their siblings at home too.

In their minds, Mandarin has become the language of the elderly (or at least of some grown-ups), while English is the norm when communicating with their peers.

Is this right or wrong, good or bad? What language should be spoken at home? Should one parent speak English while the other Mandarin, or should only one language be spoken at home? Language learning for kids is an arduous task; what sort of plans should parents put in place?

When I returned to Chaoshan, the hometown of my grandfather and maternal grandmother, being in a different space inspired a different understanding. I noticed that the shop assistants, pedestrians, relatives’ kids all spoke Teochew unless they are from another province. I was puzzled: why didn’t they speak Putonghua? Don’t they know the commercial value of the English language? Why did my relatives not feel a sense of urgency to teach their children English? I asked them, “Are the kids learning English?” The parents all said that teachers would teach them when they start school.

Later I asked an elder who was a Chinese teacher in the village. He said that the teachers themselves were still learning English, which they then teach the children. He did not seem to take it too seriously. I am not sure if we should judge according to our own standards, seeing this as a lack of broadmindedness and long-term vision, or see it in a totally different social context: as a mark of confidence and self-assurance. My relatives in Chaoshan do not aspire to be number one in the world or number one in the country; they only wish to keep on living in their homeland. Capability is not linked to language—at least that is my sense of their way of thinking. One more thing: they don’t expect us to speak Teochew, but will find it hard to accept if their own children don’t speak the language at home.

I observe the way they do things and wonder: if I have kids, how would I educate them, and in what languages? I have a friend in Beijing who has just returned from Oxford University; she speaks to her two-year-old child not in English, but only in Putonghua. She even coaxed the child to mimic the Shanxi accent overheard in the kindergarten. When I asked her about this, she did not appear anxious, and felt that English learning would come naturally in the future.

I returned home to a completely different environment with different mode of thinking. Is a thing useful or not: to what extent is it useful has become the criterion for evaluating people and matters in a country that constantly ponders its own survival. Through reading history, I do not doubt that the rise of a nation may bring about the elevation of status of a particular language and culture. The smart and sharp observers quickly fall in line. Sometimes I reflect upon the reign of Louis XIV, when the French language was all the rage. But if we think in another way, that we learn a language not for its practical value, then finding the best method would become less crucial. When the adults teach their children a language that might not necessarily facilitate global dialogue, but because it is an intrinsic part of their culture and tradition—this type of education emphasises self-awareness, and a sense of self-respect and integrity. Isn’t this important?

Only later would one consider questions of usefulness and pedagogy.


Lee Huay Leng is a journalist who works for Lianhe Zaobao. She was its correspondent in Hong Kong and Beijing and she is now based in Singapore. Huay Leng is also the founding member of Tangent, a civil society group.


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5 Responses to “学语以外 : Beyond Language Learning”

  1. Nick says:

    Lee Huay, I haven’t quite finished reading your entry yet. I had to stop and ask you a question before I continue reading. Where in Shantou did you buy the Snow White dvd? When I visited the Chaoshan area, everytime I was in a DVD store and asked for things in Teochew, I’d get directed to the section with ancient movies like 蝦魚來 (don’t have the dvd’s in front of me, so I probably wrote the chinese wrong. but it was He Hou Lai in Teochew). so i have a bunch of these disks, mixed in with karaoke vcd’s, but nothing as cool as Snow White. i am very, very jealous :-)

    i’ve only read one sentence so far, but I’m already loving your blog entry. now i shall continue reading your entry.

    btw, found your blog on a friend’s facebook post

  2. Nick says:

    oh sorry…just saw your name in chinese and realized your name is actually Huay Leng. i’m from the states, so i got a little confused.

  3. Nick says:

    I feel that learning one’s own language for the sake of maintaining a cultural identity is important. Parents can only do so much to make sure their kids have even a tenuous grasp of their dialect. Once the kids go to school, they’ll always naturally favor what everyone else is speaking, whether it’s English in Singapore, French in France, or Cantonese in Hong Kong. However, this does not mean that parents should give up on the task before even starting.

    Using Teochew in the States as an example: I think parents should be resolute. If they do want to preserve their culture, then speak Teochew to their kids from the beginning, and never stop, it will be impossible for them to lose the ability to comprehend basic TC, unless of course, tired of their parents’ constant use of what they consider to be an archaic language, they run away from home and lose all exposure to it. When the day arrives where the kid comes back from school refusing to speak a single word of TC, then so be it. This doesn’t mean the parent has to stop. Just keep speaking to them in TC, and only use English when absolutely necessary. One day, if and when the kid wants to become fluent in their own dialect, then at least they have a basic foundation of comprehension they can rely on to learn on their own. Whether its through looping the Snow White DVD, or visiting Chaoshan for a few months by themselves.

    For a long time, I’ve harbored this dream of, when the day comes and I have children, sending them each summer to Chaoshan to live with relatives so that they can be fluent. That’s still way in the future. I don’t know if that’ll actually happen, but if it does, I doubt I’ll be the first to try.

  4. Nick says:

    Hi. A friend of a friend found it, and I now have it. It’s too bad they didn’t dub the music though.

  5. huay leng says:

    good to hear that you’ve got them. i can’t remember which shop did i get it from. in fact, i thought it’s most common in the dvd shops. i got the cartoons while my father got his teow chew opera and cross-talks one evening when we strolled along the streets near the hotel.