On Learning One’s Language

If someone told me 20 years ago that I would write this article, I would have laughed at his face. I hated learning Chinese (Mandarin) and didn’t feel that it would be anything useful. In Singapore, everything that mattered was and still is taught in English. However Singapore made it compulsory to learn a 2nd language, for most people, that would be selected based on race. How dreadful it must be!

My little history

Things however changed in secondary school (Age 13-16) for me.

Back then, “Higher Chinese” was a recent addition to the syllabus and I unwittingly managed to place myself in it. Getting an almost failing grade in my first test was a shocker. How bad was I to get that?! I dropped learning a 3rd language, Japanese, in order to focus more time on Chinese. Grades did go up a bit but as far as I was concerned, it was dreary as can be. Compared to English, Chinese is quite a challenge to master, so I never developed much interest in it. In Upper Secondary, I got a new teacher. Boy…that was rough. In her classes, it was a miracle to pass, because her tests tested us on very few things from the textbooks. In other words, no matter how much you dug into the books, you would still suck if that’s all you know. Here’s the deal, I don’t think she expected or wanted anyone to pass. It was to drive home a single point…all of your Chinese suck, and that stuck.

I must have been a masochist because in retrospective, that should be when I started finding Chinese interesting. My teacher was from Taiwan where the standards of Chinese is a lot higher. Unlike my previous teacher who was a lot nicer, instead of sticking to the books, her tests included excerpts and passages from various types of Chinese literature. (I mean who reads that stuff?!) We flunked but it exposed us to the breadth and depth of the language. It exposed us to Chinese culture. That was what mattered. She had two years to fix our Chinese and at least for me, she succeeded. I went from a C5 grade to A2. Along with that, I also gained a healthy interest in my own racial language and culture. (It doesn’t change the fact that she is quite a sadist and was responsible for 75% of my homework even though Chinese was 1 out of 9 subjects I was taking!)

When I came to the United States to study, my university had a program where they would let native speakers have group meals with learners of a language. I signed on to keep my Chinese in use. That was when I found that it was a boon to have my own language to define my identity. It felt…good. I also found the time to learn Japanese but that is another story.

Fast forward to now, I now have 2 daughters and I am pretty draconian in ensuring they learn their Chinese well. Why do I insist?

Reasons to learn

  1. Your native language defines your identity. For me, I take pride in saying “I am Singaporean and racially Chinese”. The first part is where I am born and the second is what I am. “What I am” is not just my skin color, it is also what I speak. I am still connected to my lineage and ancestors through the language I speak. I am not just superficially Chinese. This is not about racial superiority, religion or politics. It is just about understanding where you came from, knowing the sources that created you. Your native language is your heritage.
  2. Language shapes your thoughts. Every new language you learn gives you a new perspective on everything in life. Academically, that might let you see a solution when others don’t. Speaking your thoughts has just got a new dimension.
  3. Empathy. When you learn a language, you get an empathy for the culture that comes with it. For example, to truly appreciate Anime, you have to learn Japanese. Your way of thinking begins to go on the same wavelength. The best way to learn a language is to eat, drink and live it, in other words, embrace the culture that created it. From another perspective, it should theoretically not be possible to be racist towards someone if you speak their language because you would have invested the time to understand them. You might still end up disliking someone for other reasons, but definitely not because of their skin color.
  4. It is great entertainment! It doesn’t take much to realize that knowing more languages means more media outlets for entertainment. More books to read, more shows to watch, more music to listen to, more games to play, more people to hang out with…etc…the list goes on. It is also pretty awesome not to need to wait for translations.
  5. If you are Chinese or just interested in the language, it also makes economic sense. With China becoming a global economic powerhouse and many global MNCs doing business with China, knowing Chinese has become quite a boon in deal making. In the foreseeable future, this will only grow.

Perhaps one of the best examples of someone who made it a point to reclaim his racial heritage via language would be the man who drove Singapore’s independence. He had a book on the topic. I agree with him on this matter wholeheartedly.

Growing up, I have encountered folks both in Singapore and in the US that looked down on their own race or deny their own heritage. They either do not or refuse to speak their own native language. Its curious but imagine someone who despises their own skin. How can such a person ever find happiness in life?

Can one truly be proud of who one is without knowing his native language?

Now my kids are attending elementary school where English is the only spoken language. As they grow up, I hope knowing their own native language will help them feel good being themselves. Through that, they can then forge their own unique identity and a good path through life.

At the very least, I know they can connect with my mother pretty well. That always helps during family reunions.


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