Sunday, April 14, 2013

learning mandarin

(a lot of boring worksheet photos. Yes the cam is back)

I don’t think I have ever been as ashamed in my writing career, as when I was conducting interviews for a book on speaking Mandarin.

In the newsroom, I had always been one of the more bilingual English reporters. I can conduct an interview in Mandarin (or Cantonese) and write everything down in English teeline.

It’s a definite plus.

But interviewing the average Singaporean Chinese man-on-the-street with his pidgin command of Mandarin and mixy-mixy English-Mandarin potpourri (那个COE price increase…), is different from interviewing Chinese academics, community and business leaders who are mostly amazingly fluent in both languages.

As I work on the book with a Chinese writer who also attends the interviews with me, and as we give each interviewee the choice to speak in either English or Mandarin at the start of the session, I realize to my dismay that most choose to speak in Mandarin.

And there are three points I notice:

  • When they speak in Mandarin, there is a closer sense of warmth, cordiality, intimacy, between us. There is something cold and business-like about English (or maybe it’s just how Singaporeans use English). So much so that in my last interview, even though the interviewee started off in no-nonsense English and I was asking the questions, I decided to switch to Mandarin halfway through and that was when we struck gold. Its like, Chinese speaking Mandarin to each other connect better on a personal level. (on that note, when I speak Cantonese to a Cantonese speaker, it gets even MORE personal! We can talk and bitch about anything!)
  • For those who are supremely eloquent in Mandarin, there is something about their way of thinking and perception of the world which catches me by surprise. It is astounding. I do not get the answers I expect, I get better. And it is shameful when I just cannot translate the English follow-up questions in my mind, pertaining to philosophies and such, into Mandarin. I stutter, I stumble, I umm and ahh and after I finish every badly-phrased question, I feel my face prickling red. It is also supremely disappointing to me that I cannot capture the beauty of the proverbs they use which I hear for the first time (I actually apologize and ask for translations on the spot) in English writing. For the first time, I felt Mandarin-handicapped. Paralysed.
  • Of the two of us, the Chinese writer is the one who is far better off. I am inordinately envious. Her Chinese far surpasses mine and her command of English, while not as good as mine, is definitely adequate and she has worked as a producer for the BBC.

Have we ever thought about why the Chinese actors on Channel 8 sound so much more natural speaking Mandarin, than the English-speaking Chinese actors on Channel 5?

And why is it that even until today, I tend to lapse into Mandarin when I am with some friends, at the hawker centre, at the wet market, all chin-chye settings which I am most comfortable in? Yes, I write and read and speak and probably dream in English, but I feel more connected when I use Mandarin.

That’s my experience.

Now the kids (like I said, I have been feeling ashamed, which made me think about how these kids are doing on the Mandarin front).

My approach with regard to Mandarin has always laissez-faire, as it is with almost everything else. I once begged KK, the Chinese High and Hwa Chong JC grad, to do the dual-language approach when they were young – I speak English, he speaks Mandarin – but he dead refused. He said ever since he married me his Chinese has gone down the drain.

I have always mostly left Mandarin education up to the school, and their Tata and Nene who only speak Mandarin and whom they see once a week (now fortnightly). I also try to speak to them for a bit in Mandarin every day. No, they don’t listen to 93.3 and no, they don’t watch Chinese TV.

What’s happened now?

About Jo and Lu, I speak in brief because they are still starting out. Lu’s favourite phrase is 你的屁股很臭(your bum stinks) and a few other choice foul picks, but she definitely cannot converse with me.

Jo, who doesn't go for tuition because she hasn't asked for it, is scoring full marks in all her 听写 but she can’t speak for nuts in the 20 minutes or so of ‘Mandarin with Mummy’ every day. She always ends up asking me very uncertainly: Mummy can I say this in English? 

Which makes me think she will go the same way as Day....

* Jo can score. But cannot use.

... Day, ah.

In a nutshell, he is now studying Mandarin like he would study history. Its irrelevant and its to be memorized.

There’s a story I once heard about a high-flier who scored As in higher-Chinese at the O and A levels, and when she became a doctor she could not even talk to her patients in Mandarin.

That’s where Day is headed. Not the As, but the method. The subject requirements have gone over his head and to cope, he is mugging.

The tuition centre he is with kindly sends me a SMS reminding me to let my child ‘memorize’ phrases for composition and after I let Day write them out, I realize he can’t read half of it. I used to memorize phrases too (一个风和日丽的早上, anyone?) but at least I could read them. He also uses them as jewels to be strewn liberally throughout but he can't quite link them up because his basic command of Mandarin grammar is not good enough (because he doesn't speak!).


* The proverbs he should be learning (but we don't, really)

The other challenge is Oral, which he faces this year. The boy can’t describe the picture, man. What the hell do you call an escalator in Mandarin? 


* Day's Oral textbook. Yes, he has a Mandarin Oral textbook.

Twenty minutes of speaking Mandarin with a crappy speaker every day (me) is no good. The good thing is that he is STILL unfailing earnest, truly wants to learn for his own good, does not hate the language and there are times when we really enjoy it, like when he reads a Chinese book (very rare) or when I try to act out these Chinese proverbs (两眼直冒火 was fun. You know, fire shooting out of the eyes...). He also has good teachers. Apart from Ms Fierce in Primary 1, he had a fabulous one in Primary 2 and a nice man this year who talks to them about, er, communism in North Korea.

But he still is clearly Mandarin-handicapped.

Never mind. I’m sure none of this is new to anyone. He, Jo and Lu (and me) will just have to cope. They must learn Mandarin and I'd be thoroughly ashamed if they gave up or disrespect the language. It’s just hard trying to learn something which is meant to be used, from a textbook. And no, no more Mandarin classes or Speech and Drama or whatever. 

I also think there’s something about today’s soft have-it-easy kids, not being able to commit to a language which requires significantly more discipline than one with 26 alphabets. I am sorry to say, too, that as a lazy chin-chye parent I take some of the responsibility for not being able to make them sit down and write rows of Chinese words every day.

Do I wish I had done something earlier? I do wish we had done the dual-language approach. As far as I have heard, that seems to work the best. The no-choice element (they must only speak Mandarin to so-and-so), and the daily interaction.

Then again, that doesn’t explain why my violinist friend from China, whose husband is also from China and the two of them speak in pure China-Chinese all day long at home, have to send their kids who grew up in Singapore to tuition because they scored badly for Chinese in school.

Right now, I just hope that somewhere along the way, one of the kids (or maybe me, again) can find something very cool in Mandarin, as cool as K-pop (I suspect the number of kids who can sing Korean song lyrics is staggering), so they will be self-motivated (I see my job as trying to get them to do their own thing without involving me but it's a bit harder to make Chinese sexy).

Then perhaps they can start to see, on their own, that Mandarin is a living language which is not dated, not about boys and girls behaving primly and properly all the time, not about a country which is polluted and manufactures dodgy products, not about twee red things, but is relevant and happening and useful and whimsical and elegant and profound.

Otherwise, well. Before they know it, they'd just end up like me.


Anonymous said...

Maybe we need to change hol destination to Taiwan or China. Jun

Jo said...

I completely relate to this. My perfectly good-Mandarin speaking husband refused to do the dual thingy and even brushed off the whole Mandarin issue, UNTIL he heard how HORRIBLY American Eva was speaking a few words in Mandarin. I wished I had taken Mandarin more seriously; I grew up hating the language in part because of horrid tuition and gross memorization. I think I was in my 20s before I realized it was useful, emotive and as you said, elegant.
Guess what, now I'm taking Chinese tuition! Yes, for myself. (VOLUNTARILY!!)

justpassingby said...

I learnt Mandarin from playing with my only neighbour with kids my age... and they spoke nothing but mandarin... consider it an immersion of sorts. As a result, I now can sound respectably chinese, but can't read or write half as well. :(

Sher said...

jun: end of the year. thats my plan. taiwan. maybe not the see-see look-look type holiday but just STAY there.

jo: omg, good for you!!!! i must ask eva to speak some mandarin next time but i'm sure she'd look at me like i were mad.
but i must say, also, if u dont use it u lose it. after i do up the book, i doubt i'd be put in a position of having to be proficient in the language. i just keep doing english writing, u know.

justpassingby: unfortunately they are surrounded by english-speaking kids. seriously, even the ones from china end up speaking singlish.

crabbycrab said...

sigh* i can relate to this too. i'm a chinese writer, and i would like to think i did all the right things with the kids when they were young .. spoke to them in mandarin, read chinese books with them blah blah .. but sadly, i dont think it paid off.

the younger one is in k2, so maybe i cant tell yet; the elder one is in p4 and i think his chinese is atrocious. spelling 100marks yes, but cannot apply in compo, no point. compo grammer ok, but content is boring, cos' obviously he doesnt know enough wow phrases.

im actually quite sad, i want my kids to do well in languages cos' i think it's extremely important. im starting to think it's the flair thing. no flair for language, so whatever they do or i do, wont help? ;(

francesca said...

I tried letting the kids watch Disney channel in Chinese. My girl who is 3 asked me - can it be in English?

Sher said...

crabby: wow u've done the textbook thing... what would it take, man?
i dont know. flair is one thing. but just to be functional doesn't require flair, right? i think functional is good enuff.

francesca: happens to me too. or they look for english subtitles.

rachel said...

you took the words out of my mouth.

i am thankful to the chinese tutor who comes by twice a week to help isaac with his homework & stuff; think our mother-son relationship would not have survived if i had to continue to help him with his chinese. :P yeah. it was pretty ugly for a while.

Eng Beng said...

Senior, U referring to EduNation? I saw your name under English Copywriter.

Sher said...

Nope, not EduNation! I only copy-edit the English articles for them.

Eng Beng said...

haha, i see. btw, my gf is a chi grad from ntu, and is now a pre sch teacher. think she would love to speak mandarin to Lu. she has been following her (your blog) for eons, and kept talking about how cute she is to me - like all the time! '-'"

Sher said...

speaking mandarin to lu can be quite entertaining! i'm sure it'll be worrying in primary 1 but for now, its fun.

June said...

Eh totally agree with you about Mandarin being a warmer medium :)

Anonymous said...

Love the blog. I struggled and still struggle with Mandarin. Living in China though for almost 5 years and suddenly stuff I don't even remember learning comes back to me. It's really about the environment. When you asked, what's escalator in Mandarin? The shopping centre announcements came to mind and wahla! it's 电动扶梯

Sher said...

June: Next time I see you I'll speak Mandarin hahahah.

Anon: That seems to be one of the conclusions. We make them study the language, and as much as they hate it, one day it all comes to the surface when required.