Speaking Chinese in Manila

Speaking in tongues 
By Walter Ang
June 6, 2005
Philippine Star

"Speak in Chinese!" is a line from my aunt every so often when she visits. When I talk to grandmother, I sometimes have to ask her to define what she just said or I'll turn to my sister for a quick translation. If friends have t-shirts with Chinese characters written on it and ask what it means, my answer is always punctuated with the word "something." For example, "This says, `The wind is something something power something something."

After being raised in a household where Fujian Chinese was one of the spoken languages and attending a school with some classes taught in Mandarin Chinese for thirteen years, this is what my mastery of the language is reduced to.

I am representative of a large chunk of the Chinoy population, usually third or fourth generation descendants of immigrants from Fujian, China, who were born and raised in the Philippines. We don't flinch when we swallow exotic Chinese dishes (unlike so many contestants on American reality shows), however, what comes out of our mouths usually causes a lot of flinching and frowns from relatives who are able to speak the Chinese dialects with mastery.

Mind you, my broken Chinese is not something I am very proud of. Of course, who would not want to be well versed in more than one language? Parents are forever trumpeting about lucrative job offers. I know of people from my high school who are now holding down great jobs in China, Hongkong and Taiwan. On local shores, we have the likes of wedding host Michael Lim who has captured a sizeable niche market with his ability to emcee parties in Tagalog and English, as well as both Fujian and Mandarin Chinese dialects.

For more practical reasons, knowing another language makes traveling less intimidating. I made it a point to remember the really vital Chinese phrases like "Save me!" and "Where is the bathroom?" Also, you can always gossip about another person in the same room as long as he or she doesn't know Chinese!

Knowing at least the basics of Chinese, I have also been lucky enough to be granted access to more nuanced emotions that only language can subtly convey. Watching Chinese films subtitled in English is the best example where this aspect comes into play. I always prefer to watch Chinese films in their original Chinese soundtracks instead of dubbed versions.

Living with the language
Growing up while having to learn Chinese makes for interesting memories. I remember instances in my childhood when I would pause in mid-sentence while speaking so I could process what language I needed to use for a certain word.

I once read somewhere that linguists know for a fact that languages are best learned as a child. The tongue and brain are still flexible and impressionable enough to acquire "sound units" as foundations to more complex word structures. Different languages have different "sound units," and after a certain age, it becomes harder for the brain to learn sound units of another language. This may explain why most adult Chinoys I meet are prone to pronouncing my name as "Wart."

There was no conscious decision for me to develop my affinity to English and ignore learning Chinese, it just gradually ended up that way. In the environment where I grew up (which I presume applies to many Chinoy households), it's not uncommon to hear four different languages in one sentence. Imagine Taglish and with two Chinese dialects spliced in.

Learning the language
Lest everyone assume my parents wasted tuition money on me, I do wish I were better at the Chinese dialects, but the opportunities to use it are, realistically speaking, few and far in between. Exposure to Chinese dialects is not prevalent as well. We used to have TV shows like Sesame Street and Batibot to help kids learn English and Filipino, but there was no counterpart for the Chinese dialects.

How the language is learned poses part of the problem as well. You first have to contend with the fact that you can't learn Chinese the same way you learn English or Filipino. It's not made up of letters that you string into words. You have to learn the characters that make up the words, at one or two characters per word.

One really must learn the language by rote. This becomes a trap for some as they never move on to learning by comprehension.

Let me illustrate: in kindergarten, we learned the Chinese names of things(house, pillow, tootbrush, etc.) and moved on to complete stories (much like Reading & Literature class) in elementary school. That's when the learning starts to falter. Students retain the learning process of "simply memorizing" when they must begin to learning through "understanding through context." But there lies the rub, if you don't remember the words, how can you understand?

While I'm not an educator and am not an expert on language instruction, I've always felt that the curriculum we had was designed on an assumption that Chinese is spoken fluently at home. It relies on the notion that there is repetition and reinforcement after school hours, two key ingredients in learning a language.

But real life is not so clean cut: "My parents don't speak it all the time anyway," "We're living in the Philippines, not China," "Since you don't use it in your everyday life, why learn it?" These resentments also become barriers in learning the language.

Learning and studying Chinese can cause many a heartache for most students who have to take it up. In the school I attended, you had to pass your Chinese classes otherwise you'd be held back in that grade level. With a full English curriculum load to tackle, the extra Chinese classes can take its toll.

Since I was never really very good at it, I spent half my high school summer vacations attending remedial classes for the Chinese subjects that I'd failed. I remember a few times during final examinations where I would break down in tears while reviewing. I would get so frustrated at the endless and pointless memorizing I had to do just to pass a class. Sure, I had classmates who passed Chinese, but it seemed to me that the ones who had a hard time with it far outnumbered those who actually understood the lessons.

Life after school
I did a mini-survey of my high school batchmates on their thoughts of having learned Chinese in school. For all the mental and emotional torture we had to endure, a lot of us don't really regret having taken up the language. We only wish the curriculum had been more suited to our needs. "The lessons should've been more conversational in nature," is usually the comment.

There's been a trend of Chinoy college graduates taking up further Mandarin studies in China. While their parents are glad to have the children take up the language albeit late, is it really such a good thing that you have to re-learn something you've spent 13 years learning already?

The curriculum and the teaching methods should be evaluated if they are working for the students for the right reasons. It doesn't make sense to keep old ways just because X percent of the students pass it anyway ("If your classmate can pass it, then so should all of you.") or because they have to match the standards with, say, Taiwan or China.

I suspect one problem is that teaching Chinese is considered "just another subject" when it ought to be taught as a foreign language. I've heard that some local schools have already incorporated the Pinyin system ? the official romanization system of Chinese devised for, among other uses, as a tool for non-Chinese media (thus "Fujian" instead of "Fookien") and as a pronunciation tool for language learners.

To be fair, most of my Chinese teachers were real troopers. They did the best they could and had a sincere desire for the students to learn. But hackneyed teaching methods (maybe a little more classroom role-playing and Chinese cartoon screenings would help?) and an ineffective curriculum (the need to make it less rigid and more conversational) doesn't really help much.

The local Chinese school system has to acknowledge the fact that they are teaching a language to Chinese-Filipinos in a Westernized milieu. Not until then can they unlock the potential of the Chinese language for their students.