Monday, May 27, 2013

A language of convenience by Natalie Heng - The STAR

Moving towards a unified education system is important, but we need to clean up first.
I BELIEVE that language is the key to aiding a greater sense of shared identity.
Personally, it's been a fairly recent revelation.
I went to a Chinese primary school, and a Malay secondary school as a result, I am a jack of both languages but a master of neither.
Fast forward a decade into the future, and circumstances have me conveniently cocooned in surroundings where there is little urgency to extend my fluency beyond my mother tongue I speak and think in English.
Sure, I sometimes buy stuff or talk to taxi drivers in Mandarin and Malay. Occasionally, I interview people in those languages too.
However, the substance of those encounters are generally limited to the kind of depth possible in a conversation strung together on colloquialisms.
And this lack of dexterity is a hindrance to making new social connections.
It's a barrier of inconvenience which I came to fully appreciate while taking part in a Malay-language theatre production.
I never really got to know my fellow actors or production team as well as I would have liked, simply because I felt lost or unable to contribute meaningfully to their in-depth conversations.
I found I would rather keep my mouth shut than embarrass myself integrating on that level entails making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself up for rejection and ultimately, stepping out of your comfort zone.
Also it was inconvenient.
I can now see how, in subtle and some not-so subtle ways, language often results in us sticking to our own little cliques.
So it is like with racial unity, when cultural stereotyping and the economic and socio-political landscape don't help with the perpetuation of prejudice.
But if we don't grow up thinking in the same language, how can we ever create a seamless and integrated society?
My opinion is that everyone should be schooled in the same, national language Malay. That means no vernacular schools, although I would like to see their strengths co-opted into a new national system.
Sadly, our country is too polarised to engage in open discussion on this issue.
I can't help but notice how in countries like England and the United States, everyone is schooled in the same language, and many second, third and fourth generation kids identify themselves primarily as English or American not as Asian or Hispanic.
In our case, though, public confidence in the public school system is at an all-time low.

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