I REFER to Miss Wu Wenyu's Forum Online letter last Friday, 'If students willingly master Japanese or French, why not Chinese?'.
Miss Wu is perplexed by Chinese-language students who are enthusiastic about learning a third language, but lackadaisical about their second. While I disagree with some aspects of her analysis, she is spot on when she says the difference stems from the students' mentality.
Her analysis ignores many differences between languages. Chinese, although of a rich and varied pedigree, does not bind the Chinese community together as other languages do - possibly because it is not regarded as essential to master to negotiate relationships within the local community, given that there are other languages, even sociolects (dialects of a particular social class), to converse in. Furthermore, much debate has been generated about how local Chinese-language teaching fails to generate interest and can even be repellent.
This being so, Miss Wu is correct in saying that the different attitudes come from the students themselves. The ubiquity of the Chinese language in Singapore - and its tendency to create a hodgepodge with words from other languages - may create further associations with ordinariness, even coarseness, especially when compared to Japanese, French or an entire spectrum of foreign languages so strongly associated with art, culture and sophistication.
Possibly due to its sheer pervasiveness, Chinese is also not commonly regarded as an avenue of social mobility the way English, Japanese and French are. The very point Miss Wu puzzles over - that a land with so many Chinese speakers can ironically produce such a lack of interest in Chinese language - is a strong reason for its unpopularity.
Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot. If a language is not needed for any of the practical reasons why languages are usually used, and where little or no interest for it exists, it can easily be displaced and overlooked. Granted, there will be exceptions, but these statements are largely true, and when we are caught in a linguistic bind, convenience and expediency will win.
Ng Kiat Han
This article was first published in The Straits Times.