“Zaijan! Xiexie!” my Mr. Congeniality son sings out cheerfully whenever we leave a place—e.g., a bank, a grocery—where there are many ethnic Chinese. Those are the Mandarin Chinese words for “goodbye” and “thank you.”
Like other multilingual kids, he’s learned to pick up the cues as to what language to use. Right after the “xiexie,” for example, he’ll go “Salamat!” to the security guards, usually with a smart salute.
He has figured out that language gets him places. In a bank, for example, or at the Inquirer office, he gets to cuddle up to people, get candies and other stuff which he’s not supposed to get at home (grumble, grumble). Language says who we are, and a multilingual child gets to navigate several social networks.
Language is especially important for the Chinese. Even if both your parents are Chinese, you’re not “real Chinese.” In Minnan, a language used by local Chinese, you’re not “chia lan nang,” “chia” meaning “real” and “lan nang” meaning “one of our people.”
Whenever I visit China people warm up when I speak in Chinese, but as I falter with the words, you can see how disappointed they become. I can almost read their minds: “He’s lost his Chinese-ness.” But when I show I can read Chinese, say, from a restaurant menu, their faces light up again. And if I write out Chinese, which I do often to indicate what I’m looking for, they warm up, offer dishes not on the menu, give you extra servings, and extend big discounts.
The philosopher Descartes proposed, “I think therefore I am.” When it comes to language, especially among Chinese, it should be, “I speak (Chinese) therefore I am (Chinese).”
This emphasis on language was the main reason why the local Chinese put up a network of Chinese community schools, supported from donations of the local Chinese, with some additional funds from the Chinese government.
Technically, there aren’t Chinese schools in the country because President Ferdinand Marcos issued a decree in 1973 calling for the “filipinization” of these schools. Marcos was actually trying to help the Chinese to become naturalized Filipinos more easily, but he wanted the Chinese schools to reduce their Chinese subjects and to change their names, taking away the adjective “Chinese.”
Last week the Linguistics Society of the Philippines had a national conference with the theme, “First Language First: Mother Language and National Development.” In that gathering, I delivered a lecture sharing the experiences of these community schools.
The experiences go back more than a hundred years; the first of these schools, the Philippine Tiong Se Academy, was set up in 1899. More schools followed in quick succession and, today, there are these community schools throughout the country, from Cagayan in the north down to Sulu in the south. Most of the schools offer both primary and secondary education, and a few, like Chiang Kai Shek in Manila, offer college degree programs.
The Chinese schools emphasized the learning of Mandarin, referred to as the “National Language.” Besides Mandarin, there were courses in Chinese history and Chinese geography, also taught in Chinese.
Next time you wonder why the ethnic Chinese are so good in Math, it’s because the Chinese schools drill students in Math, even teaching it in Chinese. I remember learning the abacus by calling out numbers while manipulating the beads. I suspect this system of linking numbers to language and to concrete objects was what gave rise to Singapore Math.
The Chinese community schools were outward-looking as well, as reflected in the name of the first school. Tiong Se was translated as “Anglo-Chinese” but actually means “Chinese-Western,” reflecting an interest in giving the students a Chinese identity, but also with an exposure to the West, in the form of English, for example. The Chinese community put in funds for this, and many schools have done very well in national aptitude exams. Even more importantly, most of (I emphasize most of) the schools have been fairly affordable, and are open to non-ethnic Chinese.
For earlier generations, especially during the first half of the 20th century, Chinese was one’s language and identity, and many actually thought they would, in their old age, return to China to retire and to die. Today, the ethnic Chinese, especially the third and fourth generations, see themselves as Filipino.
Yet many, including myself, have our children learn Chinese. The numbers seem to be growing as well. In my time, my school had three sections per year. My son is now in that school, in prep (Kinder II), and they have 12 sections, six in the morning, six in the afternoon. There are more non-ethnic Chinese students now, and that early, they are exposed to three languages, with the following priority: English, Filipino, Chinese.
Windows to the world
The Chinese classes are minimal, taught in English and Filipino, mainly to get the students accustomed to the sounds and tones. Later they will get more Chinese, including a chance for summer immersion learning in China.
Not content with three languages, some parents are now enrolling the children in summer immersion programs for Minnan, one of the languages of Fujian, the ancestral province for most local Chinese. Minnan is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore.
What has happened then is that Chinese has become a language of heritage, a way of remembering one’s roots. But Chinese community schools, by encouraging multilingualism, offer windows to the world, part of a global cosmopolitanism. With these languages, I hope the children will appreciate the diversities of languages, and cultures.
Parents’ attitudes toward the language are important. Our own language preferences, our language switching, tell them what our views are. Recently when my eldest daughter asked me for her Chinese name, I decided to get a bit formal with a letter explaining how important names are in terms of who we are, of what our aspirations are.
I had some difficulty writing the letter because I chose a language which was not encouraged in my school, in my time. But I feel it is important to use that language with my children, even as they get to master English and Chinese and whatever languages that will be required in their schools. Multilingual they will be, but they will someday declare, with confidence, what their mother language is.
So I wrote the letter, giving the Chinese characters and a few English words. The letter was in Filipino.
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