November 23rd, 2011
There are other things I should be doing right now, as always, but this post at Ethnic ChinaLit grabbed my attention for two reasons. First, it’s depressing that so many Chinese parents seem to be abandoning local and minority languages and dialects in favour of Putonghua. The argument that Putonghua is important for their kids’ future economic success is spurious at best. It seems to me that the majority of the world’s people grow up at least bilingual and that learning local or minority or otherwise non-prestige languages has no effect on their future economic well-being. I also don’t buy the argument that learning more languages increases the educational burden on students. It’s common for European students to be taught more than one language, yet every European I’ve ever met has survived the experience intact.
And then there’s this comment:
With the increasing popularity of mixed marriages where only one parent speaks Mongolian, Chinese is the language of choice at home;
And y’know, one of the most frustrating things I’ve found about raising a mixed baby in a mixed marriage is the sheer number of ignorant and sometimes just straight out stupid comments we hear about language. We’ve split the language labour: I speak to our daughter in English, my wife speaks to her in Mandarin – and here I use the word Mandarin because such conversations in this family switch between Putonghua and Yanqinghua depending on the social context. But I’m not concerned about Yanqinghua somehow “polluting” her Putonghua, because as she grows and learns about the world, my daughter will learn quickly and easily the different contexts in which different languages or dialects are appropriate. English with Daddy and her Kiwi grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Mandarin with the Chinese side, varying between Putonghua in Beijing and Yanqinghua in Yanqing. But some people are terrified this approach will somehow confuse the child. I have never yet seen anything to justify such fears. A colleague and his wife take the same approach with their daughter, who is now two and, so my colleague reports, switches easily and comfortably between English with Daddy and Mandarin with Mummy. The other day at work my wife found herself in yet another of those conversations about mixed babies and mixed languages, and heard a story of a family in Guangdong where one parent speaks Cantonese, the other Putonghua, and a grandparent some other language, and baby switches easily and comfortably between those three languages depending on which big person she’s talking to. And I haven’t done a huge amount of detailed research into this (i.e. none), but everything I’ve read on the topic suggests that that is the case: Given a clear context for each language, baby copes just fine.
Then Mr Humes raises three points, and while the first touches on the structure of the education system, he sums them up quite nicely with this:
These factors contribute to what reporter Bai Yansong labeled the “Mongolian is useless” school of thought (蒙语无用论) that is widespread in society.
Now my wife and I are lucky in that we are native speakers of dialects of two of the world’s more important languages. Nobody questions our choice of languages to teach our daughter; they question whether or not it’s possible to raise a child bilingually without terribly confusing the poor wee thing. But it seems to me that an awful lot of people are running around with an extremely narrow and petty definition of the word “useful” that can be summed up in answering this question: “Can I, without any thought and just at first glance, see an immediate beneficial application of this knowledge/field of study/language to a real-world situation?” There are an awful lot of things in this world – art, literature, music, blue skies scientific research – whose immediate utility is not terribly obvious but which are immensely useful and beneficial. I have, of late and elsewhere, been in the mood to launch into a collossal tirade about how the application of this narrow, petty, and very harmful definition of “useful” is partly responsible for the world’s current economic woes, but for now let’s stick with language. I have been known to, just for fun, tell my boss and his secretary that I’m going to teach my daughter Maori. Of course, that would require me learning Te Reo first – widespread Maori-language education in primary schools was very new when I was a kid, and not very effective. But their response is scorn. Why teach her that useless nonsense? Well, I can think of many reasons, most of which are connected with it being one of the languages of her Daddy’s country, and one with official status, to boot. For starters, if she goes to school in New Zealand she will have to learn some Maori anyway, and I’d expect that to be a lot more than I got, as the curriculum and standard of teacher training should have improved dramatically since then. I also do what I can to ensure the English she learns has a bit more of a New Zealand flavour than the bland, internationalised English I have to use at work, and my impression is that more and more Maori words are being used in everyday New Zealand English. There certainly seem to be more and more Maori words gracing the pages of the New Zealand Herald without the brief, bracketed, weak English translation that used to be the rule for situations in which sensitive mononlingual Pakeha eyes had to cope with a Maori word. But to try and pull myself back on topic: Language is very hefty part of culture, and culture is a very hefty part of identity, and identity is a very necessary aspect of healthy human life. Abandoning a language because it doesn’t enjoy the same economic and political prestige as English or Putonghua is likely to lead to a lot of people growing up with strong and difficult questions about their culture and identity, and it’s not difficult to think of examples of how disaffected, alienated youth contribute to some very unfortunate social phenomena.
Of course, languages are just as mortal as people, and although some, like Latin, leave behind healthy descendants, other languages die childless. But languages, like people, need a bit of TLC, and part of that tender, loving, language care is a healthy pride in one’s language, and part of that pride lies in teaching it to the younger generations, and teaching them the value of that language. And a language’s value does not lie in its immediate economic and political utility, but in its expression of culture, values and identity. And no, learning a minority language does not need to disadvantage any child. The human brain is both flexible and powerful, and polyglotty should be seen as the norm and not as the exclusive and miraculous preserve of a few talented individuals, because so far as I can tell it is the norm and monolingual societies the exception.
And now that I see just how far this post has diverged from the title I gave it, I suppose I should get some lunch then get back to that lesson planning and test marking I was supposed to be doing.