李慧玲 : Lee Huay Leng
Translated by Francis Lim Khek Gee, with additional translation by Tan Siok Siok
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.