Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Mandarin A Mother Tongue ?

I refer to Ms Yeo's letter to MyPaper dated 1 Dec 09.

Ms Yeo is proud of the fact that she is at least able to speak and write in the same language as her ancestors. This is because of her mastery of her 'Mother Tongue' which is Mandarin.

If Ms Yeo goes back just two to three generations of her family tree, she would find that her ancestors likely did not understand the Mandarin that she speaks, as they used Chinese dialect. Neither could they read the simplify Chinese characters Ms Yeo is familiar with. Her ancestors probably read and wrote in the traditional form of Chinese characters.

In other words, she neither speaks nor writes in the same language as her ancestors. Her ancestors mother tongue is not Mandarin.

Mother tongue is the first language that we learn when we are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult. Thus, unless Mandarin is the language one speaks at home with family members, it is not the mother tongue for all Chinese. It is certainly not the mother tongue of most of our ancestors.

In modern day context, likely English is the mother tongue for many regardless of race. Most of my friends speak to their children in English. English becomes their mother tongue. Mandarin is therefore still a 2nd language they pick up either in school or from the community.

In the early days, the term 2nd language was used to refer to Mandarin, as for most Chinese, our mother tongue is dialect. Then, the government started to use the term 'Mother Tongue' to refer to Mandarin, in their hard drive to promote the use of the language. Though they struggle with the bilingual policy, but they certainly has been pretty successful in brain washing the new generation of S'porean in believing Mandarin is the mother tongue of Chinese.

Ms Yeo also mentioned that Chinese language is a window to our roots and identity. I would wish to add this should include dialects. Chinese culture is rich, vibrant and colourful due to its many dialect groups. Each group has its own unique traditional practices, music, songs, dances, operatic repertoire....including culinary delights.

I am afraid that only culinary delights manage to 'survive'. This is thanks to S'poreans favourite pass time - 'Makan' (eating) and our fascination with with all things edible.

However, without the linkage bridge provide by dialects, other aspects of our rich Chinese cultural heritage are slowly making an permanent exit from our cultural scene and fading away.

This is one of the direct consequences of our years of Speak Mandarin campaign - the lost of our rich cultural diversity.

Every coin has 2 sides. We have been bombarded by the positive aspect of government policy. However, there is another side of the coin which we need to reflect upon and acknowledge the negative impact. The speak Mandarin campaign, has sounded the death knell for dialects and has cause irrevocable damage to part of our Chinese culture intricately link to the use of dialects.

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