For learning Chinese, it's a matter of...more, not less

IT SEEMS like every time something worthwhile but difficult crops up in the curriculum, it gets dumbed down or dropped altogether. Just look at literature, for instance.

It's easy to imagine the same mentality at work in the recent adjustments in mother tongue learning requirements. Hopefully, that's not the case.

For sure, I have great sympathy for those with difficulties learning their mother tongue. I've struggled with it all my life - as everything in my demographic profile predicts I should.

I belong to a generation reared in dialect-speaking homes, where Mandarin was much more of an alien tongue than it is today. And with six years in the Raffles schools and an English degree from a British university, I'm as English-educated as the stereotype suggests.

Many of my peers are sanguine about this state of affairs. English is after all the main language with which we earn our keep in the world. It's how we plug into the global network of news, knowledge and entertainment. And let's not forget, it's the one lingua franca that holds Singapore together as a multi-ethnic nation.

Yet I for one would like to see more language learning, not less. But it has to be pitched right.

As an adult, I've become grateful for a bilingual schooling that obliged me to acquire some skills in a different language. After all, the best schools worldwide expect advanced students to acquire a second or third language (including even 'dead' ones like Greek and Latin). Some studies have also tied multiple language ability to brain development and intelligence - in other words, that it can help, not hinder, learning.

I've often envied my parents, who had the chance to pick up some conversational Malay in school and have no problems getting around across the Causeway. Our command of languages as diverse in origin and nature as English and Chinese or Malay or Tamil is a precious institution and a rare competitive advantage.

In a globalised and heterogeneous world, it pays to be able to see things from more than one cultural perspective. Singapore's bilingual education policy helps cement cultural heterogeneity as a central aspect of our way of life. And if learning a second tongue is important, it only makes pragmatic sense to begin with the language associated with one's ethnic group, however estranged that mother tongue might have become in daily life. It's still an extra tool in one's arsenal of knowledge and skills.

However, we should remember that school grades are an imperfect gauge of one's affinity or passion for a language and its native culture. A former classmate who had spent his early childhood abroad was always faltering in Chinese class back in Singapore. Yet he was deeply fascinated by the stories and philosophies of China, which he pursued through books in English. Another schoolmate, with straight As in the language, had trouble interviewing a grassroots leader in Tanjong Pagar, who spoke in a rapid-fire, street-wise, dialect-peppered Mandarin.

Language abilities will vary naturally. But one need not be highly proficient in a tongue (or any skill) to benefit from it. Surely the ability to communicate and engage with a culture and its participants is the critical thing.

A little less than pitch-perfect orthodoxy could even be an asset. Villagers I visited in China a few years back were polite but cool to my classroom Mandarin. In fact, the young ones kept wanting to practise their English lessons with us. But they warmed up considerably when I broke into my native dialect - even though it wasn't their own patois. They too associated formal Mandarin, it seemed, with dreary classrooms, the bureaucratic machine and a certain officiousness.

I'm all for equipping our students with the linguistic and cultural tools they need to engage with the emerging Asian powers. But the old-school approach of trying to browbeat students with culture is no longer relevant.

With 21st century China caught up in a wave of Westernisation and modernisation, the classical ideals of Confucius and Sun Tzu that some hope our students will imbibe through the language have become quite removed from the restless, ruthless, diverse modernity that's portrayed, for instance, in Wei Hui's novel Shanghai Baby or Cui Jian's gritty rock music. The same, I'm sure, is happening in modern India.

A vague ethnic affinity is not going to be enough. If we're going to work, live and play with them in future, we must take a good, hard and unsentimental look at the new face of these ancient Asian giants. That's how they'll be looking at us.

The raising or lowering of mother tongue standards is a side issue. We need to urgently help our young engage with these living cultures as they are today, not as they used to be - and that's already a mammoth undertaking. Is our present language curriculum up to the task?