My mother is Peranakan and my father is Cantonese so all my life, I’ve only spoken English at home. Grammatically-correct English at that (or so I think). Despite years of Mandarin lessons, my grasp of the language is at best, conversational.
This low level of bilingualism used to be a source of pride for me. I had mainly English-speaking friends, went to an English-speaking church and only used Mandarin when I was struggling to buy food at the hawker centre. Being predominantly English-speaking served as an identity marker. Although it made me the butt of jokes about being a ‘banana’ and a ‘helicopter’, it did not seem to matter, because I had close friends who were also branded as such. Together, we laughed off our lack of proficiency and traded tales about miscommunication as a result of a poor grasp of Mandarin.
When I started teaching however, this sense of, dare I say it, hubris, was shaken fairly quickly. I found myself having to converse in a wide array of languages and language varieties from the onset. In my conversations with parents, I found it necessary to code-switch between low varieties of pasar Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and low to high varieties of English. By some sleight of hand, I also found myself seated with the Mother Tongue teachers.
It was then that I realised how linguistically handicapped I was.
I wished I had the ability to talk with my Mother Tongue colleagues about their pedagogy and about their classroom management techniques.
I wished I could tell my Nepalese pupil’s mother that her daughter was adjusting well in school.
When I noticed that a pupil in my class had no pencil case and was wearing shoes that were two sizes too small for her, I wished I could ask her Hokkien-speaking mother what the family’s financial situation was without it sounding like an insult.
Instead, all I could manage were rudimentary sentences, usually accompanied with stuttering and ending with laughter (and often, confusion) from both sides.
I decided to make attempts to be multilingual. To the chagrin of my father, I enrolled in a short Cantonese course and started conversing with my Cantonese-speaking colleagues in slow sentences. I started tuning into a Cantonese radio station in the mornings. About a year after that, I bought a Mandarin-English electronic dictionary and tried to read an article from the Chinese papers each day. Along with a fellow ‘banana’, I signed up for an advanced course in Mandarin at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Taking the term ‘mother tongue’ to heart, I also tried to speak to my mother solely in Malay.
All my attempts, I’m afraid to say, came to naught.
In the fast-paced world of the school environment where rushed two-sentence utterances were the norm, my Cantonese remained at the ‘Hello, how are you? Have you eaten?’ level. While the Cantonese course and radio programme helped to ‘tune’ my ear to Cantonese sounds, they barely left a dent on my language repertoire. As for the Chinese article reading, I gave up after about half a year because I was stumped at every other word. The advanced Mandarin course was fun but because of our collectively low levels of proficiency, my classmates and I could not converse at length with each other, much less meet our teacher’s expectations of participating in a rousing debate on clones. Speaking only Malay to my mother barely lasted a few days, after I realised how little I knew beyond day-to-day vocabulary.
Whenever I read articles about the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism however, I feel a tinge of regret. Being surrounded by masters of the English language has also fostered a sense of humility and inadequacy in my own standard of English, which to the eyes and ears of others, probably seems riddled with common errors, despite it being the only language I can speak and write ‘properly’. (One can probably spot an array of language errors in this post, that I am blind to.) To address this issue, I finally bit the bullet and paid for a New York Times online subscription and have resolved to re-read the grammar books I used with my students as well as hunt for courses and books I can go for as well as read. Despite having an undergraduate degree in English and English Literature, I’m learning that as with anything else that is worth mastering, language mastery needs effort and takes time, and requires a thirst for constant improvement.
The best, to quote Robert Browning and one of my alma maters, is yet to be.