Monday 8 July 2013

For kids' sake, speak properly

By Tee Hun Ching, The Sunday Times, 7 Jul 2013

Friends often express surprise when they hear me converse with my kids in Mandarin, maybe because I work for an English language newspaper.

This is usually followed by an anecdote or two about their children or other kids they know who are apathetic or, worse, allergic to the language.

One friend recalled how her five-year-old girl would thwart her attempts to practise Mandarin with her by retorting in English: "Mummy, stop speaking to me in this alien language."

Proficiency in Chinese, once deemed an uncool language when I was in school, is now highly valued because of a resurgent China. But my husband and I use the language at home not for its economic currency, but for sentimental reasons.

We both grew up in Mandarin-speaking families. So while we spend most of our day at work reading, writing and conversing in English, Chinese remains the language dearest to our hearts, and one which we invariably use with close pals.

I would love to see my kids develop the same emotional ties with their mother tongue.

What my friends don't know, however, is that I fear my children will never grow to appreciate the poetic beauty and economy of the language, for we are such poor role models.

I may speak decent Mandarin, going by standards here. But Chinese has been dumbed down so much in school that we no longer expect much from one another. Half-baked Mandarin, stemming from ill discipline and ignorance, has long been the norm.

So when my six-year-old son asks his three- year-old sister in Mandarin to, say, pass him the pink colour pencil on the table, it does not surprise me that "pink", "colour", "pencil" - or likely all three words - will be uttered in English. He is merely modelling his speech after mine.

I was reminded afresh of how woeful my command of the language was when I visited my sister in China recently.

While chatting with my brother-in-law, who is Shanghainese and speaks little English, I found myself having to rehearse nearly every question and sentence in my mind first to weed out English words and iron out grammatical kinks in order to be understood. It was more embarrassing than exhausting for someone who regards Chinese as her mother tongue. At a language symposium held here last month, Associate Professor Xiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen from the National Institute of Education urged parents to converse with their children in the language they are strongest in, not the one they hope their kids will excel in.

This is because when your grasp of a language is weak, your vocabulary tends to be limited, she was reported as saying. This, in turn, hampers your child's learning of that language.

The advice seems straightforward enough. But in the melting pot that is Singapore, it is not always easy to tell which language, if any, we are good at. This is despite the fact that more families are reportedly using English to communicate with their children.

For most Chinese Singaporeans, our Mandarin is riddled with English, and our English is a fractured version we fondly call Singlish that blatantly defies the rules of grammar.

It is ironic how, for a country that constantly trumpets bilingualism as the cornerstone of its education policy, so few of us actually manage to master two languages, or excel in just one, when we leave school.

In the Singapore context, being bilingual is not so much about being fluent in two languages as having the knack of mixing two - or more - languages in one sentence.

I once heard a mother telling her child to wash his hands with soap by combining English, Mandarin and Malay in one short, wonky sentence: "Wash na ge sabun."

In such a "rojak" linguistic environment - there, I'm just as guilty - it is an uphill task trying to teach or master any language in its unadulterated form.

We also butcher the grammar, mangle the pronunciation and concoct our own words and expressions that would not be understood beyond these shores.

I despair whenever I hear my two pre-schoolers go: "You eat what just now?", "Please open the light" and "Why he don't talk to you?", among countless other jarring examples.

Besides constant corrections, exposing them to good books and films and, of course, disciplining myself to speak proper English and Mandarin without any cross-fertilisation, I am not sure what else I can do to boost their language abilities.

If we are not more mindful about what we spout, our kids may well grow up speaking alien languages that would confound any native speaker.

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