Why bilingualism might be a 'Chinese' problem - personal observations

We ought to note that whilst the whole world needs to pick up Mandarin to do business with China, and with singapore even considering promoting mandarin over all other languages for this and associating its Chinese with Chinese culture, that is not the case with India. The latter doesn’t seem to have a problem with multilingualism as opposed to the former which has yet to scale the heights of bilingualism. In this, what we might be witnessing is an attempt to break one’s legs so that we can keep up with a multiculturally disabled people, and which might serve as a significant basis for the failure to make more out of one’s intelligence through bilingualism.


Mastering two languages is not easy for those socialised into a ‘one-way’ Qin-style mode of thought – as opposed to a ‘Chou-style of thought. The problem here is not bilingualism but traditional bilingualism where one is taught to identify with phenomena because ‘it’ like that one lahhhh’.

Reason and rationalism goes out the window when rules and tradition become the reason as opposed to standing the test of reason. What can be expected of minds that do what is done because that’s the way it is done? They are always going to suffer that degree of stupor that pulls them back into that which they are familiar with.

In my personal interactions with singaporeans, and especially the Chinese, I have to admit that there is quite a significant difference between the races when it comes to information-processing. But, again, I have to say that these differences are the greatest between those of the present of all races, and those of the past (70s, 80s) of all races.

In a sense, any ethnic minority will generally have a greater intellectual advantage over a racially and culturally defined and distinguishable majority. The reason is simple enough in that the majority would generally have formed a system of coping with the way things have transpired with the predominant style of thought and thoughtlessness. Any new minority, or a minority in a new nation, would not have the ‘luxury’ of couching themselves in the way things generally are. They will hold alternative perspectives which will contrast with the prevailing one and this in itself can cause dialectical reactions in themselves that can lead to greater analytical and critical propensities. The same applies to multicultural nations such as India where people have not been afforded the luxury of a singular system of thought, language, cuisine, faith, etc, for more than 2000 years. Hence, in truly multicultural states such as India, as opposed to Malaysia and Singapore, people are forced to re-evaluate the beliefs of the day before in the morrow. These cause differences in information-processing abilities, and the ability to successfully embrace the different or new.

The Chinese in singapore have been the cultural majority for about 3 decades now. Whilst they might have been the racial majority for more than that, their status as the cultural majority was ushered in by the pogrom against difference undertaken in the late 70s by the government by way of the dilution of difference between Chinese dialect groups, and then amongst the non-Chinese through policies effectuated in many significant arenas. Thus, their need and ability to process new information overtime was significantly weakened compared to other ‘races’ whom had to deal with the goodness of fit between distinctive styles of thought.

Bilingualism is one form of difference that will not fit very well with a people accustomed to a ‘one-way’ approach toward reality. Just about everyone looks upward for directions, abide by policies, and do not question or challenge authority or what’s popular. For instance, phrases like ‘it’s like that one lahh’ and ‘it’s company policy’ as ‘reasons’ for things are pervasive amongst such a populace. Anyone who has more than a modicum of experience with this ‘uniquely singaporean’ experience will attest to that. In south Indian films, however, the word ‘logic’ or ‘reason’ or ‘rationale’ features very frequently along with metaphorical, poetic, critical, philosophical discussions and so on. That might explain why the critical mind that is not averse to difference is required for bilingualism, and multilingualism even, to succeed.

For instance, in dealing with customer service persons in singapore, I personally prefer dealing with Indians, Malays, or Filipinos as they process novel information on the fly and actually answer my questions. However, in dealing with Chinese customer service persons, I almost always get a blank look followed by ‘it’s company policy’ when I ask a question that I know most would not have asked, or am given simple answers, or a reiteration of an earlier answer which had prompted my question. This is not really noticed by people socialised into such a scheme of things as they too would conduct interactions in a relatively superficial way.

Generally, I found that the Chinese do not ask questions, tend to make sense of a statement given the first opportunity to do so i.e. ask for an orange juice and you get an orange (exaggerated example of course), averse to contradiction, and find those who question the status quo to be ‘complainers’ or ‘trouble-causers’. Upon contradiction in discussions, the Chinese I interacted with would not seek clarification and generally remain silent. This is not the case with the British, whom seem to enjoy a good argument, and neither is it amplified amongst the Malays or Indians I interacted with. After a decade of interaction, stark differences presented itself to the point I could not deny that there were great differences in said information-processing. In conclusion, I observed that the Chinese tended to teeter on the edge of traditionalism. That is, the most well-worn path is always preferred. They are most appealed to by the obvious, the popular, the simplest, the least intellectually demanding, similarity, and so on – unless it is trendy, top-down imposed, or at the work place. However, I also noted that there were differences between Chinese men and Chinese women – with the latter being more inclined to take on challenges, but being as averse to novelty. For instance, I can interact with Malays, Indians and Chinese, and it is the latter two whom would be picking up my vocabulary and styles of thought for cross-application in a few weeks to a few months, whereas, with the some of the Chinese I interacted with, they continued the way they had thought and spoken a decade or two earlier. In two decades, I have encountered only one Chinese, by the name of Melvin Neo, who processes information like the English-speaking Chinese of the 70s or an Indian.

When one triangulates this with how the norm is adhered to throughout the country, be it in the political sphere or social one, one can begin to understand why bilingualism can be quite an issue amongst the Chinese. We must also note that whilst the whole world needs to pick up Mandarin to do business with China, that is not the case with India. The latter doesn’t seem to have a problem with multilingualism as opposed to the former which has yet to scale the heights of bilingualism. What concerns me in the case of China is that whilst the world is attempting to keep up with China’s multicultural disability by learning Mandarin, China will be seeing it as evidence of the greatness of their culture where the inverse might be more true. In the case of singapore, addressing bilingualism from the vantage of a culturally segregated milieu and stating that language and intelligence might not be linked comes across as a ‘whitewash’ of consequences of cultural segregation and exclusivity. That will simply leave the basis upon which the whole problem might have emerged.


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