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Tue, Dec 08, 2009
The Straits Times
Be practical when teaching languages

By Janadas Devan, Review Editor

If a national leader were to suggest that we cannot demand that all our children acquire a uniformly high standard in mathematics, would anyone object?

Of course not. There was streaming in mathematics even before there was streaming. When I was in pre-university in the early 1970s - long before streaming was introduced in schools - those who were inclined to the humanities did elementary mathematics, while those who were inclined to the sciences did pure mathematics. It was assumed that the humanities-inclined needed some grounding in mathematics - so they would be able to find their way in the modern world with a flashlight at least - but there was no need for them to know the higher reaches of set theory and what not.

It is difficult for people to be similarly pragmatic when it comes to languages. This is so not only of Chinese, but also of English.

Every time the question of English standards becomes a subject of controversy here, one invariably find letters or editorials in this newspaper urging that students be made to read the classics or that they be drilled in grammar or that they be taught to speak properly - like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, preferably.

The fact that English is in reality a 'second language' for many of our students - and that it should accordingly be taught like a second language to them, despite its status as the 'first language' in our schools - does not seem to have occurred to many educators. Literary and linguistic education in any language, far more than scientific education, always seems prone to unrealistically high expectations. There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, the highly literate in any language are all Sanskritists - figuratively. The word Sanskrit means 'composed' or 'synthesised' - the language as it exists in the grammar books - in contrast to the colloquial versions of the language, the Prakrits, which literally means 'the naturals'.

Just as the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish) developed from forms of vulgar Latin in Western Europe, the modern languages of northern and central India (Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali) developed from the Prakrits, the vulgar Sanskrits. And in their turn, Italian and French, like Hindi and Bengali - not to mention English - developed 'composed' versions of themselves as well as varieties of 'naturals'.

Not to put too fine a point on it, literary education in any language tends to be dominated by the Henry Higgins of the language, its Sanskrit speakers, not the Eliza Doolittles, its Prakrit speakers. Thus, the unrealistic expectations; thus, the insistence that the classics of a language be handed down; thus, the insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach in teaching languages.

Being something of a Higgins myself, I rather sympathise with this Brahminical approach to language learning, but it is impractical. The cultural elite in all languages here would be wise to adopt the pragmatic way in which mathematics is taught.

Of course, it has always been easier to be pragmatic and dispassionate about numbers than about words. 'You use arithmetic, but you are religious,' the philosopher and mathematician A.N. Whitehead remarked once - and language, in this respect, is closer to religion than it is to arithmetic.

As in the case of religion, one is justified by the language one speaks; one's character develops in accordance with it; one's sense of belonging, of being part of a community - of being human - begins with the language one learns as a child.

'Languages make possible both the living of a common history, and also the telling of it,' Nicholas Ostler notes in his magnificent Empires Of The Word: A Language History Of The World. The corollary of that truth is that a common history can also be lost if competencies in a language are diluted.

This is especially so since the inner sense of any language is not obvious or easily translated. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, the limits of our worlds are defined by the limits of the languages we speak - but these limits can be known only implicitly, from within that language, not explicitly, from without. Our sense of a particular landscape, our feel for the lie of the land - our grasp of an entire world - can atrophy if the language that gifted that world atrophies. It is not possible to preserve the insights, perceptions, judgments of Chinese in English - or vice-versa.

For this reason, one can sympathise with the Chinese-educated who expressed trepidation that the teaching of Chinese here will be simplified for some students, to take into account the varying linguistic backgrounds of Chinese Singaporean. Still, there is no alternative but to be pragmatic - and I would argue, not only in the teaching of Chinese, but also of English as well as Malay and Tamil.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out, what Chinese Singaporeans are doing - learning both Chinese and English - is in fact far more difficult than learning English and French or English and Latin or English and Hindi. English, French, Latin and Hindi are all Indo-European languages; Chinese and English belong to different linguistic universes.

A look at how particular languages spread over the centuries would indicate how unusual this particular combination is. Take Arabic: It displaced Aramaic in Syria and Iraq, then Egyptian and Berber in North Africa - all Afro-Asiatic languages, like Arabic. But the spread of Islam to Persia - and later South Asia - did not lead to the adoption of Arabic in these regions. As Ostler notes, it was not easy for populations that spoke an Indo-European language, like Persian or Punjabi, to pick up an Afro-Asiatic one.

A similar dynamic can be observed in the spread of Greek in the ancient word: successful in Anatolia (today's Turkey), where people spoke related Indo-European tongues; unsuccessful in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, where they didn't.

The widespread failure of the Japanese to learn English - 'despite Herculean efforts' to do so over decades, Ostler points out - indicates how difficult it is to bridge such different linguistic universes.

Compared to the Japanese, Chinese Singaporeans have not done badly at all in juggling two such different languages as Chinese and English. There are problems, some serious; we will probably still be tinkering with language policy in 2059; but Singaporeans have not done too badly.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

 
 
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