At the start of 2021, I made a new year’s resolution: to pick up a third language. Specifically, I wanted to learn Japanese.
In fact, this was something I wanted to do since I was 13. As an avid fan of anime, having to wait for subbed (subtitled) episodes to be released or having to look for pirated subbed episodes online was a real downer.
And so, my birthday wishlist for a couple of years consisted of language books on learning Japanese. When the language app Duolingo gained popularity, I spent hours on the app trying to pick up the language. Just last year, I had my friend who took a language module on Japanese in university to send me her notes and went out to buy a Japanese textbook so that I could study the language on my own.
Such valiant efforts I made, for a language far removed from my own culture. All the while, minimal effort was put into the language I actually grew up with and still used in my daily life — Mandarin.
Try speaking to me in Mandarin now and I probably couldn’t go five minutes before hitting a roadblock and realising there was a word I wanted to say, but didn’t have the vocabulary for. Despite growing up with the language and speaking it at home, my fluency is conversational at best and thrives only within a Singapore context where we are accustomed to speaking in a mixture of languages. Place me in a full-on Mandarin-speaking environment and I would be a fish out of water.
Why I don’t speak my mother tongue
It should be noted here that ‘mother tongue’ in this case refers to the Singapore government’s definition: the stipulated languages of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil (as well as other languages taught under the bilingual system such as Hindi and Urdu, among others). It does not refer to the common definition of ‘mother tongue’ as an individual’s first or native language.
My story isn’t unique — many of my peers are no more fluent than I am in their mother tongues but are willingly learning a third language. Even if they’re not trying to learn a third language, trying to improve or working on their mother tongue languages isn’t on their to-do list either.
With that said, how did this phenomenon arise?
Surely there should be greater incentives to master our mother tongues as compared to learning a third language. After all, it’s a language relevant to us in our immediate community and region, much more so than other popular languages such as Korean, Japanese or French.
I can’t speak for everyone, but perhaps it has something to do with Singapore’s very own language policies, and how our mother tongue languages have been taught to us since young.
Singapore’s bilingual policy
Singapore’s education system meant that learning our mother tongue languages was part of a compulsory curriculum that started from primary school and lasted minimally until secondary school — a solid decade. This was the case for every student, barring any extenuating circumstances.
A brief background
Since the People’s Action Party (PAP) was first elected to power in 1959, bilingualism has been the cornerstone of our language policy. Under the policy, English is Singapore’s working language while the mother tongue languages (Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin for each of the three major ethnic groups) will serve to strengthen an individual’s values and sense of belonging.
As a result of this policy, English was used as the language of instruction and administration, and slowly became the primary language used in the workplace. Meanwhile, usage of the mother tongue languages remained predominantly in the specific language classes in schools; the usage of the mother tongue languages at home thus became the onus of parents.
The decline of mother tongues
The implementation of this language policy was highly effective, and Singaporeans very quickly adapted to it. Usage of English started to rise even as the usage of the mother tongues fell. This trend has continued since the 1990s to date, and is present across all the major ethnic groups in Singapore.
With this trend comes the diminishing opportunities to use our mother tongue languages, leaving us with fewer opportunities to practice the language, and fewer incentives to do so.
Learning my mother tongue in school
The most vivid memories I have of my mother tongue language education in school were the dreary tasks of writing the same word over and over again as part of my xi qi (basically, writing a set of words multiple times in order to learn and remember how to write it) practice, or the dreaded ting xie (spelling) that happened weekly.
As far as I recall, learning Mandarin involved a whole lot of memorisation and rote learning. At least, back in my day.
Needless to say, this inspired no love for the language. Instead, it became a subject that I took only because I had to; I was constantly awaiting the day that Mandarin would no longer be part of my school curriculum, and I rejoiced when the day finally came at the end of my first year of junior college. Since then, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to write anything in the language.
And therein lies the flaw in our bilingual education system — with scant opportunities to use the language and weak motivators to learn it, it’s no wonder many find it difficult to muster the motivation to improve on it.
Internal vs external motivation
Why I should be working on my mother tongue languages have been drilled into me since young. From school, I was told that my mother tongue is an important part of my heritage and culture. From my parents, I was told that with China rising as a world leader, being able to speak Mandarin will be paramount in my career in the future.
However, in essence, both of these reasons are external motivators — a reason to achieve my goal that comes from a source outside of yourself. While the reasons are true enough, they weren’t factors that I valued in my own life and as a result, my only reason for wanting to do well in Mandarin was to avoid punishment by my parents or penalty in terms of grades, both of which are external motivators.
Meanwhile, my motivation for wanting to learn Japanese was internal and was derived from my own goals and values; I genuinely loved the way the language sounded, and had a keen interest in their culture and history. (Of course, wanting to watch anime without subtitles also played a part).
Many psychological studies have derived results that have supported my experience in learning languages; those with greater intrinsic motivation tend to have more interest in the subject, and perform better (Weber, 2009; Rose, 2011).
Are our mother tongue languages a lost cause?
I would say no, but only if we can find a way to instill into our students why these languages should matter to them.
And there is hope. Just this year, the Ministry of Education’s revised mother tongue curriculum launched in secondary school. It has first been rolled out in the Secondary 1 cohort, but will eventually be conducted across all levels in secondary schools.
The new curriculum aims to boost national identity and introduces a greater infusion of cultural knowledge through the use of contemporary materials, stories, and IT-enabled learning.
To keep our mother tongue languages relevant, we need to stop focusing on the ‘how’ and instead, start to think about the ‘why’. When we understand the reason why these languages are important to us, wanting to learn it will be the natural next step.
For myself, I’ve already begun to understand the ‘why’ — wanting to be able to better communicate with my grandmother and others of her generation, as well as a better appreciation for the tonalities in the language and its rich history and culture.
And that is also why, a month ago, I asked my friend for a couple of Mandarin books so that I could begin to hone my Mandarin skills again.
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