I get rather irritated whenever I read about the ‘sorry state’ of Chinese language standards in Singapore. Mostly because the blame tends to go all on the Chinese teachers themselves and how “boring” and “hopeless” they make the subject out to be. To me, that is absolute bull because I know that most Chinese teachers have a genuine passion for their culture and language and hence, are some of the most dedicated, nurturing educators I’ve encountered.
In primary school, I was put in this short-lived SPECHLL (no idea what that stands for, but yes, acronyms were already hip in the early ’90s) programme that was meant for students who did “considerably poorer in Chinese compared to their other subjects” i.e. jia kantang. This meant that we had to stay back every Friday for “enrichment” courses and sometimes, a moustached MOE inspector will visit and give us sparkly sharpeners. However, the biggest bonus of being in this programme was getting the best Chinese teacher in the school, Mrs Su, to teach us Chinese from Primary 4-6. I adored her. I LOVED Chinese lessons because she made lessons interactive and fun (e.g. teaching us to sing along to Faye Wong songs, watching “dramatic” Channel 8 Iraqi war news clips and getting our current affairs on par simultaneously) and took a genuine personal interest in our emotional and educational progress . I was totally motivated with her lessons and my Chinese composition skills improved so much such that one of my essays was even printed in the school magazine (before that my storyline was pretty much limited to a windy bright day with Xiaoming going to the market).
The point I’m trying to make is, it’s not so much the teachers but the system (as with most things in the world). I am still very much hopeless in Mandarin not because I hated the subject in school, but I just really wasn’t able to get much practice with the language thereafter. This seemed largely due to this not-talked-about-but-you-know-it-is-there-East-West cultural divide whereby:
a) My “kantang” friends take pride in how hopeless they are in Chinese (no guesses as to which schools they are from). Inversely, there is this subconscious condescension towards people who speak predominantly Chinese. Damn post-colonial hangups.
b) My “cheena” friends totally cringe when I attempt to speak in Chinese with them. There is this disdain of my “alien angmohness” and lack of pride/knowledge of my “roots”. So really, it’s not that I want to be “cheem-angmoh” but more like I don’t have the zi(1) ge(2) to banter in Mandarin with them.
I found that the only time I felt my Chinese improving in recent years was in Melbourne, where I made friends with PRCs who very patiently conversed with me in Mandarin (even when angstily bemoaning about dramatic relationship problems!) I truly felt a new intimacy with the language but that of course totally dissipated once I returned to Singapore and had the “don’t speak Chinese lah” label slapped back on.
The thing is, I really did and do enjoy learning Mandarin and still read Lianhe Zaobao at my MIL’s place whenever I can. But if I’ve been relegated to “don’t even try being cheena” (with the exception to hawkers and taxi drivers), I think it’s going to be a while more before bilingualism truly succeeds in this country.