Sunday, 22 July 2007

Speaking in Mother Tongues

Last week's Sunday Times led with MM Lee encouraging Singaporeans not to give up on their Mother Tongues. His pont is that while English has been promoted as a national asset for economic vitality, other languages, even if spoken less fluently, are important too. Now, to be fair, he wasn't just talking about Chinese keeping their Mandarin for working with China and Taiwan, but also Malays keeping up with their Malay, and so on.

I should perhaps explain that Mr. Lee Kwan-Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore has become MM Lee, or Minister Mentor (MM), a cabinet-level, advisory position. As an aside, there's a read across here to long-time Malaysian prime-minister Dr. Mahathir who stepped down a few years ago and has used his retirement to continue a political commentary.

This is a hard nut to crack. Let's take the example of a Chinese child growing up in Malaysia/Singapore. Her Mother Tongue might be English, although her Grandmother's Tongue might be Cantonese or Hokkien. At Singaporean school she'll learn in English, at Malaysian school, possibly Malay, then English later if in a science stream. Singaporeans learn Mandarin Chinese, and may also study a foreign language such as Japanese.

Frankly, it burns kids up.

So what do we drop? Grandparent language (Cantonese, Hokkien) would mean a break in family culture. Malay is the national language, plus it's useful for working with Indonesia. English is the prime target language for Singapore and international affairs. Mandarin is many Singaporean's native tongue and what about doing business with China? Plus language is the expression of culture so there's a lot at stake here.

So while I applaud MM Lee's call to retain a Mother Tongue, we both know it isn't that simple and I expect the mish-mash of languages used with varying fluency to continue. Indeed, it's one of the local charms.