Bilingualism – are we really made for it?

By Lyn Lee

My relatively monolingual close relative has a strong theory about bilingualism – that our system is unfair because most humans are just not wired for it, especially if the two languages are disparate in origin.

So when I came across this recently published article in The New Yorker, it set off a few thoughts.

This researcher found a “systematic bias in the field against reporting negative results” leading to “a distorted image of the actual study outcomes on bilingualism, with researchers (and media) believing that the positive effect of bilingualism on nonlinguistic cognitive processes is strong and unchallenged.”

An interesting insight, though it might be a common observation to those more familiar with academic circles (and the pressure to publish certain views).

Perhaps it was just ‘cooler’ to extol the positives from speaking two languages (whilst sending monolingual parents worldwide into a tizzy), rather than to honestly reveal that research findings were non-conclusive either way.

But I suppose for us Singaporeans, the debate goes beyond whether bilingualism enhances “executive function”. Well and fine for Americans who queue up to emplace their kids in Boston hot-house preschool language centres, only to realise they have been marketed what may largely be hogwash, but the stakes are slightly higher for those of say, Chinese or Mexican ethnicity, since there is the emotive issue of ‘roots’, or ‘rootedness’ to one’s ethnic origins.

In Singapore, there is a school of thought, held mostly by those who were educated in Chinese schools (or whose parents were). Namely, that we teach our children Mandarin not because of its economic value, or the rise of China which may increase the pervasiveness of Mandarin as a global language of business and learning. Our children need to be conversant and schooled in the Mandarin language at the least (and in Chinese history and literature if possible), because they are Chinese.

Other Singaporeans hold fast to the position that our real ‘mother-tongue’ from cradle to grave is English (or Singlish, if you must), and thus it goes against logic to insist fluency in another ‘mother-tongue’, especially if their etymology is as unrelated as English is from Mandarin. For Europeans to be multi-lingual in languages that are close in etymology (English and German) is a much less arduous learning process. Not everyone is gifted in languages, so the odds do indeed seem stacked up against the proportion of Singaporean kids who are not, but nonetheless expected to do well in two disparate languages.

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Since increasingly, most Singaporeans speak English at home, my close relative has even gone to the extent of proclaiming that “I am not Chinese, I am Singaporean. Why do I need to speak a word of Chinese in my entire life?” Okaaaaaay… I wouldn’t go that far, but I guess we get the point.

Personally, I do have a love for the language (credit goes to my primary school friends and good Mandarin teachers in secondary school, given that my parents don’t speak it to me), since I think it is beautiful both in form and in tone. There is something about the language, that allows certain thoughts and emotions to be expressed in a lyrical way that the English language simply cannot, or rather, can only do so very differently. And there is something very fascinating about the thousands of years of Chinese history, since geographically what we know as China today, was one of the cradles of civilisation.

I love languages, and find it interesting to learn them. But people who don’t, say that I feel this way possibly because I have an innate aptitude for them. And that I should not then think that it’s easy for every kid to pick up two very different languages, and understand how very painful it could be.

However, I am less decided as to whether or not genetic makeup obliges one to learn the language. Those involved in race research often quote how skin colour is after all only determined by a tiny proportion of our genes, 0.1% to be exact. And why should some melanin dictate what language I should call my ‘mother-tongue’?

Some parents who have adopted children from other countries, e.g. a British national who adopts a Chinese child, might send their kid for lessons to learn their ‘native language’ as a means of connecting with their ethnic origins. But by and large, children speak the languages their parents speak, and possibly nowhere else in the world (apart from our sunny state) is it made compulsory for children to take exams in a language that their parents may hardly use.

Nonetheless, that is the state (pun intended) that we find ourselves in. So I guess we make the most of it, and I do think that there is much to be gained (economics aside) from nurturing a love for Mandarin.

So I guess, even if my girls don’t achieve complete mastery of the language, so long as they don’t hate it, and develop a positive interest in it, I would consider my job somewhat done. As opposed to drilling them so that they can write the words perfectly but hate the subject totally. That would be winning the immediate battle but losing the entire war, wouldn’t it?

This post was first published over at Lil Blue Bottle on 26 January 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


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