Friday, September 19, 2008

Learn to Speak, Speak to Learn

As I read Swee Kheng's latest post on Spanish China, this idea hits me back again, and I think it's time I really share it to more people about it.

Sweeks was telling us how the Chinese (in China, of course. The Chinese in Malaysia are quite different from those in China especially in this context. Read on.) take (note: present tense) up several foreign languages so that they can communicate with the foreign visitors and sell things to them. It is well known that if it is apparent for someone to look like a visitor in a foreign country, people from all sorts of businesses would like to squeeze the blood out of their pocket with whatever method. Taxi's cut throat price, roadside pirated goods, you name it. Live examples are on show everyday in Bukit Bintang area.

What I want to point out here is not the unethical money earning method, but the very effort of learning an altogether foreign language just to make sure they get more customers. If you manage to convince a customer to buy your good, you will get one sale ahead of others. The competition is intense, and every customer counts. Beijing hosted the Olympic and Paralympic recently. It has hence created a huge opportunity for the Chinese to earn extra cash by meeting the demand of the visitors - accommodation, food, transport, souvenirs and etc. 

The Chinese realise that communication serves as the basis of connection. In stead of being proud of their mother tongue and speak Mandarin to every visitor, they painstakingly learn a foreign language to make their customers feel comfortable (and respected) while trading with them. They understand that if they were to stand at international level, they have to be able to accommodate international visitors.

English used to be the international language. Though it is still a language widely used, some has actually argued that Mandarin is soon becoming the international language. This is due to the fact that markets are opening up in China and everyone wants to have a piece of cake from them. We can see young working Japanese learning Mandarin from a guide book while commuting. However, to the Chinese, they understand that it's not the matter of whose language is the international language. It's the idea of being multilingua in order to be competent in the flat world.

If other people doesn't want to learn Mandarin, or have difficulties in learning it, then fine, the Chinese will go the other way round and learn other languages, so that they are the one approaching you to trade with you. They are the one who gets the profit. And they are the one who expands their influence, or threat, to other now economical strong countries.

The problem I see among Malaysian now is that nobody seems to realise that we should actually incorporate several languages into our education system ever since primary school. While everyone is arguing if we should abolish schools which use their non-BM mother tongues as teaching medium, why not we consider learning all the languages to solve the problem? Learn the Malay language, English, Mandarin and Tamil at least, so everyone wouldn't have language barrier with each other, and the major languages are preserved.

It is sad for someone to be restricted from speaking in a language that they know of simply because they have to respect others who don't. I understand how rude it is to do so, but if everyone were to understand what each other are talking about, shouldn't the ability to comprehend a language be cherished? 

These days we have more and more Chinese who doesn't speak or read in Mandarin, or Indian in Tamil. Of course, they still can survive in Malaysia because the medium here is mainly BM and a number of big cities out there use English. We don't have to argue if preserving mother tongue is important or forcing the young generation to take on their ancestral language is correct. We were given the impression that as a Malaysian, we have a national language, and we can all communicate in that language and there should be no barrier among citizens of this multiracial and multiethnicity country.

What a waste, Malaysia. 

The true treasure we have in Malaysia is the diversity in peace. But is that all we can get from this colourful country? Instead of just being tolerance towards each other, we can use it as a big classroom where we don't have to pay a cent to learn a new language or experience a new culture. Too bad we have yet to realise it.

Should we be proud of our identity as a country where multi races can live in harmony together, why can't we see the diversity in everyone of us? We're seeing uniformity, not unification. While the different language are still spoken in this land, we still have all we need for us to stand out in the eyes of the world. Our uniqueness is not about one national language, but the ability to communicate in different languages we learnt from our friendly neighbours who come from different racial background! 

As we talk about globalisation, are we ready for it? Are we ready to compete with other countries to be a sale ahead of them? Apparently we are not. We are sleeping while others have awaken. Language opens our world to a new dimension of knowledge we are unable to discover should we continue to be ignorance towards the importance of the "foreign" language. When the world is getting flatter, everyone can go anywhere, and everyone can be anybody else. What is it really "foreign" about that language then? The more languages you're able to command, the more knowledge and opportunities will be opened to you, and the higher and farther you will go.

Wake up Malaysia. You are a rich country if you know how to use your resourses well. Capital development and human resources, I mean. We are all blessed, but the government are too busy playing racial cards than to see the comparative advantage. I still love Malaysia. I believe Malaysia can do more than what we've done so far, by opening up the gate.


Brian Barker said...

I speak as a native English speaker from London.

English is on its way out as an international language. I totally agree.

An interesting video can be seen at

Xu Vin said...

language! yeaps.
again it boils down to initiative. n background.
on a personal basis, i was pretty unfortunate so 2 say, 2 hav spoken only eng properly all my life cz i nvr had 2 speak dialects 2 grandparents or speak bm/mandarin in sch 2 get along w frens etc. so now whn my eyes hav bn open (tat my life does not revolve ard myself lol) i hav no choice bt 2 improve my mandarin n other dialects.. which i can complain is hard but wil be made easier with 1 word: initiative. (sth lots of msians lack 2day)

Cher Linn Tang said...

Yea, also on initiave. Because I've known friends who come from Mandarin ed school but hates Mandarin because it's difficult for them.

But the gov should do sth about this, too. Learning languages is difficult, and probably we don't even have enough teachers for that. Still, it's their responsibility to forsee and provide what the nation needs.

Thanks for the comment! =)