A minister makes a comment that companies are denying work opportunities to bumiputras by mandating applicants must understand Mandarin. In the ensuing uproar, the discussion is about whether such business practises are racist and where is our national identity But not a lot has been said about language – and why it’s so important.
Just to state the obvious up top, it is clearly better to know more languages than a few. For a start, you’re able to apply for more jobs.
Apart from that, studies have shown that young children who are bilingual exhibit better executive function development (for example, they more easily focus on tasks and they can incorporate new information while doing things), while for older people, bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for up to five years.
But, really, this is one of those cases where a bigger number is better than a smaller number, so why not just learn as many languages as you can?
Obviously, it’s partly to do with time, opportunity and cost. If you could learn a new language by just swallowing a pill, then everybody would do so and we wouldn’t have any issues. But the reality is that it will probably take a year of learning before somebody is comfortable with the basics of a new language, and a few years before they are comfortable conducting business with it.
Which is of course a far, far cry from my capabilities when I was recently assigned for work in China.
In fact, I am writing this article right now from a hotel room in Kunming having attended a two-day conference by technology giant Tencent. Of the six hours of talks given on the first day, only one speaker spoke completely in English.
Now, I know phrases like “thank you”, “here welcome” and “sorry” in Mandarin, but even those simple phrases get a little stuck in the throat when I try to say them. So how was I going to write up keynote speeches when they were conducted fully in Mandarin?
With the help of technology! Tencent showed off their technical capabilities by having their software translate the speeches on the fly and put them up on screens in the background.
Now, the translations weren’t perfect, but they were certainly good enough to understand the ideas that were being put forward, including Tencent's strategies for the future and what they hope to get from it – all stuff that made it into my report.
Truth is, technology is already good enough that not understanding a local language isn’t the impairment it once was. At a shop later in the day, I pulled out my phone to grab a translation of “how much does this cost?”, and although it gave the slightly strange Ta yao duo shao qian (instead of zhe duo shao qian or the more casual zen me mai), it got the point across.
But on the second day I had to attend a series of interviews, and the magic translation technology device was no longer needed. Thing is, everybody but one on the interviewees spoke fluent English, even though they gave speeches in Mandarin the day before. After all, they understand the importance of knowing English on the world stage.
I think we too easily dismiss the role of language in communication. I mean, we must be if all we seem to be focusing on is criticising its role in dividing communities, instead of how it can bring us together.
Strange thing is, they say “only 7% of communication is verbal”, referring to the importance of tone and body language in getting a point across, and this is something that I found both quite true and not true at all when I sat down with that one interviewee who needed a human translator.
What I mean is, without the translator, I would not have understood at all that he was saying about the role of technology in transportation. It’s impossible to communicate complex ideas by waving hands about (despite what you see in Parliament sometimes). So the words are essential.
However, this was easily the toughest interview I had of the day. It takes time for an interpreter to listen, and then repeat in English what was said. It created a disconnect between the subject and me. We couldn’t, for lack of a better phrase, get into the groove.
That is what language does. It creates connections and relationships. It brings us closer together. It is absolutely essential for humans to form societies. Or dare I say, a nation.
After four days, by the end of my trip, I was much more comfortable saying xie xie (thank you), bu ke qi (you're welcome) and dui bu qi (sorry), and I even picked up dui dui (correct, correct) in the process. And those small interactions with hotel staff and bus drivers raised confidence and cordiality, and made everything more pleasant all around.
So while we should recognise the role of a national language in fostering national unity, and racism can wear many guises which we should not condone, we should also be aware that multilingualism makes us richer, both in our country and to the rest of the world.