Sunday, August 3, 2008

the functions of languages - a war...

I'm no linguist. But since posting my previous personal post regarding the Chinese and English language, I am itching to write this post on the functions of languages.

Let me begin by describing my sins of the past. I used to loathe "bananas". Yes, by "bananas" I mean those English speaking Chinese who can't speak a word of Chinese (other than the few famous phrases spoken in those HK TV serials aired over RTM and ASTRO). That was more than 10 years ago. Many things happened since, and I've come to let go my prejudice. However, this doesn't mean I'm any less insistent on the education of the Chinese Language for Malaysian Chinese.

This is mainly because I see a Language as more than just a tool of communication. Language also represents a way of life, a way of thought and most importantly a cultural representation. Therefore, by foregoing your right to learn Chinese is like losing a part of you as Chinese. (Note: I'm not being racist or promoting cultural superiority here. That being a proud Chinese doesn't make you any less Malaysian because, I think, we all can agree that there's a vast difference between Malaysian Chinese and China Chinese)

Many of my English-speaking friends disagree with me. Insisting that culture and language are independent of each other. My simple answer to them is this: reading Shakespeare in Mandarin is quite different from the English version. And likewise if you are reading Sun Tzu's art of war in English, the 'feel' is very different. Moreover, terms such as 'gentleman' are difficult to translate to Chinese and likewise 君子 is not possible (or near impossible) to translate to the other.

It is not possible to describe what 君子 means in a word or two. You'll have to understand Chinese literature and history and stories to understand how the concept of 君子 is depicted. And there are many more words like that in both English and Chinese. Language is actually a bridge that connects our thoughts to the real world. But there is always a gap between what we think and what we say or write. Therefore a lot of expressions (words or phrases) in a language are beyond explanation. Only experiences can give you the true meaning of a word or phrase.

I'll give you another example. We all know what love is, in a very general way. But everyone understands love in a very different way because of the love stories we hear, the movies we watch, the way we are brought up, etc. There is nothing that would suffice in explaining what love is until you experience it. A definition of word is not given by the dictionary, but given by one's experience of the world. It is how one perceives the world. And therefore, the teaching of a language will inevitably include the teaching of how one perceives the world.

Given that, it is not surprising why Chinese-educated and English-educated folks think very much differently and view the world quite differently. Not just in the command of language, but also the way they think. And that's why I think there is a minute, but detectable polarisation among those that are Chinese-educated and English-educated. It's because language is closely tied to culture, behaviour and thinking patterns. In Chinese, 'respect' (尊敬) is closely tied to the relationship between the younger ones, and the older ones; between teachers and students. But there isn't any such ties in English version of 'respect'. This is why, in general, Chinese-educated students have a tendency not to challange teachers in the public.

In many parts of the world, there isn't any clear distinction in this function of language. The language used to communicate is the language used predominantly in their respective cultures, e.g. Germans, English, Japan, etc. That is why, I do not expect Chinese nationals (from China) to really understand this situation. In Malaysia, however, it is different. We are a multicultural (or heterogeneous) country, each race with our own preferred choice of language and hence a different set of thoughts.

As a result of this, there are many ongoing arguments in Malaysia on which language we should use for our Math and Science subjects. Some may even argue that Malaysians should use one unified language - English for our education system. There are two issues here. One, should there be only one language? Two, which language should it be if we should only have one unified language for our education system?

But first, let there be no doubt that using one single unified language as the medium of teaching helps the national unity. While learning your own mother tongue is human right, there is no denying that the nation needs to speak or understand one common language for unity to happen. And this so-called common language for unity is not just a language we learn and know per se, but also it becomes the preferred choice of language for communication among ourselves. This is something that even Dong Zong (董总)should realise. And obviously that language will not be Chinese.

Then should it be English? Or Malay?

I noticed that most Asean scholars or Singaporean-educated Malaysians, if given a choice, would prefer to use English as the sole medium of education. I guess, in giving me a choice between Malay and English, I would have chosen English too. As Tony Pua mentioned in his blog, many Chinese-educated students may find it difficult to obtain a good job at the highest level of corporates due to their inept in English language. However, one should not go to the other extreme of our neighbour too.

Decades ago, the then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew decided to discourage the use of Mandarin in Singapore. He reckons that learning two first languages (English and Chinese) will make Singapore less competitive. Obviously, at that time, when China was just recovering from the cultural revolution and during the pinnacle of cold war, Lee Kuan Yew chose to abandon Mandarin. Just a few years back, however, he changed that. The reason is again obvious - China's back as the superpower of the world. Therefore, I reckon that Singapore is the perfect example in the World that uses the language for nothing, but merely as a communication tool. More precisely, as a business communication tool. And I think that is pathetic.

Given that a language has its cultural value, there is no doubt that I want to learn Mandarin. And I would want my sons and grandsons to learn Mandarin. This language is built up upon more than 3000 years of history. But since, also knowing the fact that Mandarin is impossible to be the 'unifying' language used in Malaysia, I admit I'm in a dilemma in this issue.

But I'm adamant, that one should not pursue a language purely as a tool of communication. It's much more than that.


Ting Ting said...

Are you trying to instill regret to people who do not learn Mandarin? Because I felt so now... :S

Brian Barker said...

The question of language is immensely complex, especially when it claimed that English already the global language. It is not.

Not even the England Soccer manager speaks English.

My view is that a non-national language like Esperanto has huge potential. The Beijing Olympics have appointed an Esperanto translator, for example.

Detail on this can be seen at

Interestingly as well nine British MP's have nominated Esperanto for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.

Anonymous said...

I would like to make the point that English as it is spoken in Malaysia and Singapore are pidgin English which is not standard English in many ways. If your family is rich enough, don't bother with learning English in Malaysia - you are better off sending them to Australia or other English speaking countries where there is a good environment to force them to use English.

I live in Australia and from my observations, I come to the conclusion that many of the so-called English educated "elites" from Malaysia and Singapore have not mingled well in Australia and other English speaking countries. This is due to the fact that their English is not the same (discouraged by weird grammar, mispronunciation of many words and most importantly cultural differences). Although these "elites" have learned English in Malaysia/Singapore but it does not necessary mean they will be able to communicate effectively when they arrived here.

Why should English be a unifying language in Malaysia when the majority of the people are Malay and many of them are not fluent in English?

Like yourself, I do not see anything wrong with being proud of one's heritage and culture. This does not necessary mean it will make them less Malaysian.

In many other countries such as Australia, USA and others, irregardless whether you are white, black, yellow, red or brown, you need to learn one language and that is English. Many of those from non-western background do not even have a chance to learn their mother tongue. In Malaysia, we are given such luxury to learn it and yet, many of those chose not to learn it! Some of us don't even know how lucky we are!

Language indeed is not independent from culture and identity. For those who are non-Chinese literate, how would you expect them to pass on the knowledge and cultural traditions from our forebearers down to the new generations?

We look at long term implications too. The English Educated ones in Malaysia have adopted English as their first language and yet they are speaking Manglish/Singlish. In the long run, what kind of culture are we heading into? Wouldn't this wipe us off our culture and background in the long run? One do not need to go far, just look at Singapore! Is this any different from creating a whole new language? At the end of the day what makes you Chinese, if you have very little clue about your language, culture and identity?

Encouraging your kids to learn English blind manner will yield the attitude of whitewashing your own culture. Many adopted the attitude that everything Western seems to be better and those of the tradition Asian are inferior.

What exactly is the benefit of westernizing oneself? The Japanese (and Koreans incresingly) are still able to be one of the best in the world without the need of English.

Esperanto will not make much of a difference in my view. The language is Latin-based, which makes it difficult for people from non-Latin based culture to learn anyway.

Chinese or Mandarin may not be appropriate for the unity of Malaysian, but if we are making the effort to create and facilitate an environment for it, it may materialize in the future.

I think there is a need to reform our Chinese education, such as to foster the out-of-the box thinking. Rather than seeing English as the answer for every single problem. If there is a loophole in our culture, we should repair it and then move on, rather than replacing our culture with a foreign one.