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Monday with the Editor: Fumbling through Mother Tongue

Hallo everyone

Over television last weekend, I heard Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew remark 'I used to believe we could learn two languages...I was wrong'.
Minister Mentor Lee's admission did two things to me:
1. It made me feel at peace with myself - I could tell the world I wasn't such a failure after all. You see, I have been fumbling my way through my Mother Tongue, Chinese, for as long as I can remember. And all along I have been thinking I am stupid or slow because I can't manage two languages.
2. It made me respect him more than ever. We all make mistakes, but if I were in his shoes, I would have found it extremely difficult to tell everyone in the face I was wrong, but, not Minister Mentor Lee. It wasn't beneath his stature to admit such things. That's perhaps, one of the reasons why Singapore has progressed thus far. Singapore does not hide its cracks. It faces up to them, makes corrections and then moves forward. 
Though I had been scoring F9s for my Mother Tongue, I did pretty well in English at school so much so I topped my school in English in the 'O' Levels. I just can't explain this anomaly. How can a person excel at one language and fail so miserably at another?
I thank my lucky stars that when I was at school, in my time, I did not need to pass Mother Tongue in order to go to the 'A' Levels. Thousands of Singaporeans who went to school in the 80s and beyond must have had a hard time grappling with two languages. I do not envy them.
I admit I have sincerely tried to learn the language in my adult years. I have bought English-Chinese dictionaries and Primary One School workbooks - you see, I thought I should start at the bottom of the ladder again. But, regrettably, I gave up after some months of slogging.
As I grew older and realised that I could read English newspapers with one eye shut but would hesitate at every line in a Chinese newspaper, I told myself, I was missing out on my heritage, Chinese culture, for without a basic understanding of Chinese literary works and thoughts, I could not develop an appreciation of the culture.
So, I set about starting my Mother Tongue learning programme again. But, I did not get to start at all, for my wife was concerned that any progress I made in my Mother Tongue would be at the expense of my English.
Yes, she's right. My English will get worse as my Chinese gets better. And as one who writes for a living, this expense is one that I can ill-afford. That's why I have abandoned efforts at learning Chinese before I have even started.
I must seem rather selfish for having done so. I have put the English Language first before my Mother Tongue. But, then, English is a language I have been excelling in for as long as I can remember. That's an accomplishment in life and in my life, I must admit, I have had few accomplishments and many failures.
Oops! I just said something nasty about myself in public. Is it because I have just picked up this new habit from MM Lee? But, it's alright. I feel good after saying such things. I realise I have to move on, despite my previous failures. And first things first, I must put aside my urge to learn my Mother Tongue, pick up the other pieces of my life, and move forward into 2005.
I reckon that's the way we should handle life - accept our own short-comings and failures, and march forward, instead of fretting about the past and letting it control us.
Have a good week!


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6 December 2004