Language wars

WHEN MY SON told me he was going to Beijing to study Mandarin after graduating, he also said, with a mischievous grin, 'See? I'm a good Chinese son after all. Are you happy now?'

It was far from an admission of defeat in the battle of the generations, or a concession to relentless pressure from a pushy (Asian) parent. He was going to backpack all the way to Beijing, staying in hostels featured in the Lonely Planet, meeting young adventurers – including 'hot chicks' – from all around the world. And he wasn't going to think about anything as mundane as getting a job, though knowing the language of an economic power would no doubt add to his eligibility for one.

Still, that he was so motivated to learn Chinese as to go to China to do it surprised me. As a child and a teenager he was never interested. His eyes would glaze over whenever the words 'Chinese lessons' were mentioned. No way was he going to give up his weekend sports, parties or sleepovers to attend tedious Chinese Saturday schools. He would forgo treats, lose pocket money, eat vegetables, clean toilets – anything rather than learn a language he did not identify with. Though half-Chinese he is all-Australian by birth; his friends, even the Chinese ones, speak English. He happens also to look more European than Asian. He surprised me once with a reference to the 'Asians' at his high school who 'always stick together'.

But I did want him to have a connection to my other cultural world, to understand at least a little of whatgong-gong (grandfather) or yi por (maternal great-aunt) were telling us as we munched on our char siu bao (roast pork buns) at the dim-sim restaurant in Hong Kong. Without knowing their language he would always look upon them as inscrutable, and their world as exotic and Other.

I also wished for him the pleasures that I have experienced – of acquiring extra perspectives that come with knowing another language, perspectives that have enabled me to appreciate the beauty of a culture as well as see through the crap. So much of a culture, good or bad, is untranslatable.


IT TURNED OUT that such wishes were very much in tune with the thinking of the times. When I arrived in Australia, in the early 1980s, the word 'multicultural' had become part of the political and media lexicon, not just as a description of the changing society but also as a kind of ideology (albeit a highly debatable one) to aspire to. It was only in my readings of Australian history later that I found out about the attitudes of previous periods: how 'assimilation' was the dominant theme of social planning, and minorities – indigenous as well as newcomers – were expected to conform to the mainstream Anglo-Celtic ways, which would include ditching your mother tongue.

By the 1980s linguists had also turned away from the belief that the young brain has only a limited capacity for language learning, and that if it is shared by more than one language the proficiency in each language would suffer. Instead, they talked about linguistic universals, about the 'deep structure' of all languages and how knowing one language actually enhances the acquisition of another. There have been many studies too to show the cognitive and intellectual benefits of acquiring a new language, how it boosts brainpower and communication skills – indispensable qualities in the quest for that Holy Grail of all parents, their offspring's academic success.

Also, as Australia became more engaged in trade with Asia, there was the growing recognition – if a little grudging – of the economic benefits of being 'Asia­literate'.

And so, from the day my son was born, I was asked, first by the nurse in the maternity ward and later by 'ethnic' as well as Anglo-Australian acquaintances, 'Are you going to teach him Chinese?'

'Yes, I will,' I would say. But as you have probably gathered from the preceding paragraphs, I turned out to be a total failure. The result of my efforts, twenty-four years later, is that my son is a typical Australian in language ability: a monoglot. Through the years he has mastered the names of a few dim-sim dishes, and a smattering of Chinese words and phrases of an irreverent nature, but that is all.

'What have I done wrong?' asks the mother who feels she has not measured well on yet another yardstick of parenthood. While I do not really lose too much sleep over that failure (as distinct from other failures), the topic of can-your-son-speak-Chinese comes up all too often during social occasions and I have sheepishly to face up to that failure again.


IT WAS NOT until I had to teach my own language that I realised how little I knew about it, for I know it as though by instinct, and not with any analytical or conceptual understanding. People said, 'You don't have to know how – just talk to him in your own language while your husband talks to him in English.' (This is known as the OPOL method: one parent, one language.) Okay, but when do I start talking to him in my language – from birth, so that he becomes a 'simultaneous bilingual'? Or when he is two or three, after his first language is established, so that he becomes a 'sequential bilingual', which according to experts is just as good?

A straw poll of friends and acquaintances could not produce a definitive answer. (There was no such thing in those dark days as online parents' forums.) Being a cautious person, I decided to delay my Chinese input until my son was two or three. But unfortunately, in my case, later means never. By the time he could get about in his first language, it was a struggle to get him to listen to me in his second. To get the terrible two-or three-year-old to do what you want him to – to get immediate results, in order to save your sanity – you begin to use only the language he is accustomed to, the language used by all his friends, his dad, his extended family in Australia and his favourite TV characters.

What's more, in the past few decades, for reasons yet to be fully agreed upon, this language has become a language for the world. Some boast about the glorious 'flexibility', 'logicality' and even 'masculinity' of the English language, while others believe its ascendancy is merely the result of historical circumstances, of British imperialism in the nineteenth century and American power in the twentieth, in the same way that Latin was once used throughout Europe because of the might of the Roman military and, later, of the Roman Catholic Church.

These days, even kindergarteners and first-graders in Beijing and Shanghai are learning English. English has become the first foreign language for most of the world, a kind of lingua franca whenever different nationalities meet, whether at a science conference in Helsinki or a beauty contest in Mexico City. The complacent, monolingual Australian thus sees little need to learn the language of other peoples, and many an ethnic parent gives up nagging her Australian-born or -educated offspring to learn her native tongue. What is the use of forcing Cantonese or Tamil or Tagalog on your children when it is not going to be used outside the home, anyway? It is far more urgent that they get ahead in the mainstream society, by first getting the world language right.

Indeed, it is by no means easy to get that language right, even for the native-born. Listen to all the squabbles between 'experts' about what is the best teaching method for early literacy: 'phonics' or 'whole language'; 'traditional', 'functional' or no grammar. And just as your child has muddled through primary school, you begin to hear the war cries of those who want to keep Shakespeare on the English syllabus and those who want students to study pop lyrics. You look at the assignment he has to do for English as a 'subject', the essays and interviews and presentations, and realise its enormousness and complexity. Then there are the maths assignments and the social studies projects, and music after school. After needling him constantly to complete these tasks in time (in competition with hanging out with mates, soccer, cricket and Nintendo) the wearied mother cannot bring herself to nag about anything else.


IN MY CASE there is also the further issue of which Chinese language to teach. Born and bred in Hong Kong, I speak Cantonese, a language of the south. Yet Mandarin is the obvious choice for people wanting to learn Chinese. It is the language of Beijing and of central government since the Qing Dynasty. Its premier status was affirmed by both the Nationalist government (established in 1912) and the Communist government (established in 1949). The latter especially had enunciated laws and imperatives aimed at the spread of Putonghua (the 'common language', the official name for Mandarin) to the furthest corner of the land. Jiang Zeman, President of China from 1993 to 2003, once remarked that there are 'too many languages' in the nation, decrying their profusion as a barrier to modernisation and unity. So, while the Chinese constitution includes guarantees about minority-language rights (and there were substantial if erratic efforts to achieve this in practice, especially for the larger and more 'assertive' minorities in politically sensitive areas), the overarching theme of Chinese language policies has been the promotion of Putonghua as the standard language for the whole nation.

History is full of stories about how coercion was used by speakers of a dominant language to bring speakers of other languages in line. This happened in authoritarian as well as democratic regimes. According to the linguist Andrew Dalby, in North America 'the speaking of native languages in school precincts was punished down to the 1950s, as it was in Australia even in the 1970s.' It was as though the maintenance of your (indigenous or minority) mother tongue posed a threat to the purity of the mainstream culture, a sign of disaffection and rebelliousness.

These days, the more persuasive tool of education is the language engineer's stock-in-trade. When a language is designated as the medium of instruction in schools across the land, the spread of its use is guaranteed. The broadcasting media, state or private, also plays a pivotal role. China Central Television dramas are a powerful instrument in the spread of Putonghua across China. And the linguist Nicholas Evans notes, 'Rupert Murdoch's Star Channel is doing more to spread Hindi into remote Indian villages than sixty years of education campaigning by the Indian government.'

Historically, as a dominant language takes over more and more spheres of everyday life, and fewer and fewer children in minority groups learn their parents' native tongues, the decline of these tongues is set in train. At the beginning of European colonisation of Australia there were about 250 different indigenous languages, but in 2005 a national survey found that only 145 were still spoken, of which most were 'severely or critically endangered' and only eighteen were considered 'strong'. Nicholas Evans observes that the same kind of language death has occurred in North America and South Africa. Other areas of language extinction include 'much of Brazil under the impact of Portuguese, in Siberia under Russian, in the Sudan under Arabic, throughout Indonesia under Indonesian, and in even quite remote parts of Papua New Guinea, under Tok Pisin, the newly developed national lingua franca.'

All over the world, linguists and anthropologists like Evans are frantically documenting dying languages, often in nursing homes where the very last speaker resides, so that the voices of entire peoples, in all their moods and cadences, do not fade into silence, and the unique experience and knowledge they articulate are not lost to the rest of humanity. Sometimes, even governments get in on the act of minority‐language maintenance, committing a modicum of funds and resources to the cause. It may be token, a sop to bothersome minorities, or a genuine attempt to support 'diversity' and 'linguistic ecology'. I have the feeling, however, that the decline and eventual death of many languages, especially those without a written culture, will be hard to stop. I wonder what the global landscape of languages will be like in one or two hundred years; what voices – if any – other than those of economic and political power will be there in our once splendidly polyphonous world.


RAISED IN HONG KONG, with an anti-Communist upbringing and colonial British education, I never had any great emotional connection to Mandarin, the language intoned by those stony-faced men of the National People's Congress as they stood or clapped like robots against the luridly red backdrop of the Great Hall of the People. Even as I was sometimes seduced by its mellifluous sounds in films and songs, and through classes and tapes, it was a language I could not call my own. When it came to choosing a Chinese language for my son, I hesitated to put Mandarin above my mother tongue of Cantonese. I started with the latter, but a few months later, when pragmatism reared its head and he hadn't learned much Cantonese anyway, I would try to start all over again in Mandarin. But the result would be the same: glazed eyes, yawns, wriggling bottom.

And so the years went by. Years one to six, according to education experts, are the foundation years, when children, with their still supple, 'plastic' brains, may learn one language and then another (up to seven, some linguists say) without apparent effort and without developing an accent. Some academics are more generous, pushing this age boundary to twelve. By the time my son was a teenager I had practically given up. I would just be happy that he got through school and university, with or without the advantage of a second language.

Am I glad that he now wants to learn Mandarin in Beijing? Yes, I think it is worth applauding any effort that will broaden the mind and open it to ways of seeing other than those of a narrow pop-culture world, or indeed anything that is an intellectual challenge (a huge one for my son, considering that he has to start from near zilch at twenty-four).

That he chose Mandarin over Cantonese does not bother me too much anymore. He did say he would tackle Cantonese after he has mastered Mandarin. After all, the two are linked by a common writing system, the script of the Han people (the majority, ruling race in China). It sounds like a pipe dream, but it is a nice thought.

In any case, by one method of assessment a language other than a national language needs about a million speakers for it to be 'safe' and not in danger of becoming a museum piece. By that measure Cantonese is not going to die out very soon. Seven and a half million loud and strident Hong Kong residents are Cantonese speakers, producing Canto-pop and Canto-films for China and the overseas Chinese world. Indeed, notwithstanding a 'patriotic' lobby that wants to replace it with Mandarin as the medium of instruction in schools, Cantonese is still so mainstream in Hong Kong that it is a kind of bullyboy to other regional dialects of the south. It saddens me, for instance, that I have not heard my mother's dialect of a southern rural county, considered 'peasant' and inferior in Hong Kong, spoken there for many years.


AT THE TIME of writing, my son is struggling on his rather expensive beginner's Mandarin course, offered by a reputable university that is nonetheless out to get foreigners' money. He has to learn forty new characters a day, not just the sounds but the writing. He is embarrassed that the Brazilians, the Germans, the Koreans and the son of a Saudi diplomat on the course seem to be doing better than he is. I am glad he is learning a precious lesson in life: if you make the mistake of not listening to your mother when you're young, you pay dearly later in life.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review