Chinese Language Not Important


Overheard 2 comments on radio.

The first is about some Singaporeans unable to speak either English or Chinese well. Despite years of studying both languages as “first languages”, many so-called “effectively bilingual” Singaporeans still struggle when communicating with native speakers of either language.

Mainlanders and Taiwanese laugh at our limited Chinese vocabulary, while the English-speaking foreigners mock at our strange accent.

We can’t speak English well. We can’t speak Chinese well. What we speak to each other is some manglish singlish that only we ourselves understand.

MM Lee once said:

“But today, we are connected. Everybody speaks English. So, you keep some part of your past, not at the same high level, same standard as before because you have to do English and mother tongue, two languages, very difficult. But if you are satisfied, say, your English is 80 per cent of what you would achieve if you only do one language, then your second language will be about 50, 60 per cent, that is good enough.

I disagree. If given a choice, I would rather give up Chinese and speak better English. At least it’s better than not speaking either well.

The 2nd comment I heard is the oft-repeated argument that we should learn Chinese because China will be huge in future.

Well, this reasoning is not new. Many of us first heard it from our Chinese teachers in primary school, decades ago. Some of my friends were convinced and worked hard at their Chinese. Many scored A* in PSLE, went to SAP schools, and got A1 for higher Chinese – only to find Chinese totally irrelevant in their working lives. The only occasions Chinese is used is when ordering food in coffeeshops and gossiping with fellow local Chinese colleagues, and even then, a substandard pidgin kind of mandarin is used.

The right reason for learning Chinese is not because China will be great. It should be because you are of Chinese descent and want to stay rooted to the Chinese heritage.

Do you think Chinese is important?


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  1. There is no need to speak perfect English/Chinese to get ahead in life except if you are a linguist or something like that.
    Some Scotsman, Norwegians, French, etc speak English with their funny accents yet they are still right up there in their career.

    Speaking the Chinese language is important.
    I can guarantee that even if you are straight As for Chinese in school, you will still stumble reading through a Chinese contract or giving a technical presentation in Chinese.
    The most important is to be able to hold a conversation in Chinese. If you can’t hold a proper conversation in Chinese, you are screwed in business.

  2. not important on

    there are many monolingual people in Singapore who aren’t screwed at work or in business. the point is that it’s absolutely unnecessary to be bilingual to get ahead in life. if you need examples, just look at how many of our MPs can actually speak even a dash of chinese, and these are the people who have excelled in their careers and in businesses. even our education minister doesn’t speak chinese.

  3. @not impt-are you referring to ng eng hen, teo chee hean, george yeo, mah bow tan, lim hng kiang, lui tuck yew, cedric foo, ho peng kee, lim boon heng, wee siew kim, yeo cheow tong and also chiam see tong from the opposition camp. i’ve only heard them speak english, but i may be wrong.

  4. the rare few who in my opinion are truly bilingual are grace fu, gan kim yong and maybe josephine teo. lim swee say seems to be good at both languages but his enunciations could be better, which he alluded to in an interview where he said something about his friends expressing surprise at him joining politics.

  5. If we should study only things that get us ahead in life, i think we should not have history, geography, literature, arts, home econs in secondary school.
    For aspiring bankers, they should not be doing physics, chemistry or biology either.
    If the argument is, you don’t know where u r headed for when u r just in secondary school, same goes for learning Chinese. You never know if you will need it later in life.

  6. monolingual on

    First, I’m of the “speak one well rather than 2 (even if at average level)” school, and my preference is English.
    Let’s look at Chinese (the mandarin version in particular). The government claims that there are 2 prime reasons for doing so.
    The first is cultural, a link to one’s roots. I’m Peranakan Hokkien. I don’t see how Mandarin links me to my roots (even if I cared).
    Let’s take the economic ratonale.
    The ASSUMPTION is that being able to speak the language will provide you opportunities to do business.
    Whilst I don’t argue with the “opportunities” in general, take a look at what the (Mainland) Chinese are doing, which is directly or indirectly establish a preference for local mainland companies to do business with. I don’t say that there are NO opportunities, but just what are the true opportunities.
    I’ve done business in the West, and all you really have to do is to convince the buyer that you can deliver as promised, and the deal is done. Even in Singapore, it’s not that easy. Try talking to any home-grown business trying to do business with the government, or GLC…in China, without the connections, you’re marginal at best.

    I should point out that I have done work in the mainland, and I do it in a 3-way deal, where I have trusted local partners who do the translation and relationship, and I think and write reports in English for delivery.
    This is very much like what I would do in Japan or Korea or Saudi Arabia.
    Does my mandarin ability (enough to tell the cabbie to read the card with the name of my hotel and understand basic prices) help in these circumstances? Yes, but not to an appreciable degree.

    To sum up, I think that Chinese should be continued as a subject, to give those who can excel in it an opportunity, but to recognise that once you have a FIRST LANGUAGE (either English or Chinese), then the next most important skill you need to have is MATHEMATICS not a SECOND LANGUAGE.
    Good groundin in SCIENCE is a close third.
    As we go to higher education, I’d add ECONOMICS above a second language.

    OK enough, or I can fill a complete blog on this.

  7. The assumption here is that because right now you speak English, therefore you will always have a job. The sad part is that the China will be the largest English speaking coutnry in 7 years time. Do you think they need you to write papers in English? I don’t think so. With the world getting flat, my suspicion is that they can just do business with the West themselves. So many westerners speaks Mandarin too, and they can do it themselves. You are redundant dude!

    For every 1 local Singaporean talent, there are 1300 ones in China. I don’t see how we can compete if our mentality is one where our starting point is one of scarcity i.e. so little time, “I don’t have enough talent to develop expertise in other things”.

  8. since china will also speak english “in 7 years time” according to you, then all the more we should just focus on learning just english and learning it well. forget about chinese or mandarin or whatever it is. you want cultural link, visit china regularly – you’ll be surprised that even the mainlanders aren’t much into “cultural link” stuff! nostalgia is overrated!

  9. 1) Look at the number of bread and butter jobs requiring “chinese speaking” skills on jobstreet

    2) Your ability to do business in China goes up several notches just being able to speak to them in the language they are comfortable with. That’s my experience. Its not just the Chinese, the same goes for the Koreans, Japanese and Indonesians.

    3) Its true it is not absolutely crucial to learn the Chinese language. However, not knowing the language just reduces your opportunities. If I have the aptitude in learning languages, I will like to learn even more.

  10. if you are just content to be based in singapore or work in singapore for the rest of your lives, then I may agree that just having English as your key working language may be good enough. Having spend more than 10 years abroad, it is increasingly clear to me that if you wish to have a more global career, having a good 2nd or 3rd language is a pre-requisite. The day when the majority of chinese are able to speak good english is the day when singaporeans are irrelevant. As it is today in my work place in HK and 1st tier cities in China, the chinese elites are bilingual in both languages and the constant criticism of headhunters for top jobs in China are that Singaporeans’ mandarin skills are just not good enough.

  11. >The day when the majority of chinese are able to speak good english is the day when singaporeans are irrelevant.

    There are many asians who speak only English, eg the asian americans. They are not irrelevant. Singaporeans too won’t be irrelevant if they speak only 1 language. Like anywhere else, there will be people who are naturally good at languages – our education system should be flexible enough to identify these talents and groom them while at the same time not penalize others who will be much better off learning 1 language.

  12. As a chinese, the place I want to go is definately not china. I’ll rather experience something totally not related to the chinese culture.

  13. Mandarin Speaker on

    When China’s economy crashes within the next two years, all this talk will be moot. Just like how it used to be with Japan many years ago, only it will be worse in China because of the gap between the poor and the rich.

    Will China be great someday? Sure, if it loses half the population, and that’s not within my lifetime.

  14. English Speaker on

    Looking at how things are going, probably the economy of euro and US will crash first. Given the arrogance of some of these economies, it’s about time.

    So what? We will all still speak English anyway.

    It’s still an advantage to know indepth 2 languages, be it Chinese, Malay or Tamil.

  15. it’s a trade-off. the policy makers have to decide whether to force everyone to be semi-biligual, or to let the good ones excel while not penalizing those who are much better off learning just english. why english? because it’s the lingua franca of singapore and the world.

  16. “why english? because it’s the lingua franca of singapore and the world.”

    Depending on how you view it, mandarin chinese may be the most popular language in the world due to its 1.3 billion native speakers (not including overseas chinese).

    Spanish ranks equally with English in terms of the number of speakers. Of course, the sheer economic power of the USA makes English important.

  17. Mandarin Speaker on

    English Speaker, I agree with you about the arrogance of the Western countries, unfortunately in today’s interconnected world, the collapse of the Western economies would mean that the East would collapse as well. So the scenario would either be:
    1. The west collapses first, thereby reducing ALL demand for Chinese goods, thereby causing a recession or
    2. China collapses and is therefore forced to liquidate its massive Treasury holdings, causing the US to collapse.

    Next few years should be fun. Forget about being bankers, architects, doing business in China, etc, see you in the hawker center, people!!

  18. chnrxn, i said english is the “lingua franca of singapore” because of the fact that singapore has been and still is conducting official matters and businesses in english. i agree it’s arguable whether english is the “lingua franca of the world”, but of the 3 languages you mentioned, i personally think english has the strongest social, political and economical impact. let’s also not forget that english is also the predominant language used in the internet (a source put the amount of english web content at 80%). given that we already have a head start in english, i will continue to place my money on english. if i were to be given a choice to learn and speak only one language, i would gladly choose english over chinese/mandarin any day.

  19. English Speaker on

    Mandarin Speaker, the world is interconnected but I won’t be able to agree on how economies are going to affect one another even though i’m in this trade. Well, this is not a discussion on economies.

    What I do feel is that it’s advantageous to master more than one language and we are too critical on how we master our languages. We speak better English than “most” Hongkies, Chinamen and taiwanese and we speak than Mandarin, Malay and Tamil than “all” ang mos. Depending whether we want to view the glass as half empty or half filled.

    We should encourage our students to share more, i.e. speak and write. We emphasize too many on listening and reading. Instead of reducing the weightage on mother tongue, we could even explore reducing the weightage on science and even maths. Singapore doesn’t need so many engineers in the future anyway. Language speciality could be a nichie for us in this world though we need to rely on ourselves to establish the right branding.

  20. As much as I like my children to learn English, I would like them to learn Mandarin as well.
    Economically, learning a second language increases your job opportunities. One of the pre-requisites of obtaining my current job in a global US MNC also requires me to be able to converse, read and write in Mandarin. For those who thinks English is applicable to the working environment or in business dealings in China is making a big mistake. Although there may be Chinese in Chinese cities, who is bilingual in both languages, they would not communicate in English to a Singaporean Chinese. Also, most of the Chinese documents are written in mandarin.
    Culturally and traditionally, it is imperative to promote the communication and learning of our mother tongues. There is so much to learn and understand the teachings from these wonderful cultures regardless whether it is Chinese, Malay or Indian cultures. Already there are so many foreigners learning Chinese or other languages as second or third language. Does anyone denies the benefits of learning and understanding of 1 more lanuguage?
    Reducing the weightage of any subject will provide a negative learning environment for the subject and discourage them from putting more effort into the subject. Then what’s the true meaning of education or the aspirations of an educator?

  21. “We speak better English than “most” Hongkies”

    they speak much better cantonese than we can ever speak english or mandarin. the problem with us is that we speak neither language well. their version of cantonese is much richer and more expressive than our conversational mandarin – they even use it in their business dealings and in government. the good ones can on the spot directly translate into mandarin and it is more than sufficient cos their cantonese – which is essentially chinese – is really good.

    it’s better to view the glass as half full so we can improve. if either of our english or chinese standards can match their level of cantonese, it’s one great leap forward. sadly, this will not be the case for the next 10, 20 years, or maybe ever.

  22. Most of the issue started from a root cause of chasing after paper academic which our Singapore government has focused on since years ago !

    The root cause must be dealt with if the right problem is identified. Teach Children right to love the language and not force it down as a must study subject. Get back the teachers who has a heart to teach Chinese and love the Chinese culture.
    Have anyone do a survey and check what is the turn over rate of Chinese teachers in Singapore primary school ? What is the average retentaion rate of foreign Chinese teachers ?

    Children are children, they love the teacher, they love the subject. They hate the teacher, they hate the subject.

    If parents do not speak Mandarin but live, breathe and eat Western and English only, how can you model to let your child love Chinese ?

    Lowering Chinese language is not going to help. It is a very inside view of looking at the bigger picture.
    Let me share with you my thoughts and experience.
    My American friends and India INdian friends are all getting their child to learn Mandarin. They are sharing and teaching them how the history and the culture of Chinese to get their children excited. Have we done the same even if we are original Chinese ?

    How many times have my child change Chinese teachers since K1 ? Too many times that I lost count.

    If the non English speaking children in Singapore is willing to put their heart to learn English, what is that to our Chinese children whom are Chinese orgin and cannot even try to do so at home ?

    I told my mum don’t learn English to try to converse with my daughter. Speak to her in Mandarin. As she loves her very much, they each use their common language to communicate. It is very automatic for my daughter to speak Mandarin to her grandma and English to the grandpa.

    Lastly, personally I will not let my daughter complete her studies in Singapore. She will be in China to complete her university. To me, learning Chinese and able to work globally with multiple languages are advantages that Singaporean should ride on. If we stifle the learning of languages, we will lost our love for languages which is a communication tool with different people.

    Beware, already in China, I am speaking to American, British who are more Chinese than Westerners and their love for Chinese is far greater than us.
    The next generation global languages within 10 years will be mandarin.
    Check out and ask all those who work and travel globally what will be the next language they want to pick up ? it is Mandarin!

  23. English Speaker on

    Trade-off, not trying to compare or compete who speaks better who in what languages. My point is that we are simply too critical on ourselves, especially on how we speak. Languages, we need to feel good to speak well.

    I work in a MNC. When I speak with my counterpart from China, I use Mandarin. When I worked with the folks from Europe, US, India and Australia, I use English. We have no problems communicating and some have positively commented I speak both languages well. The fact is, academically, I was never good in languages. I excelled in Maths and Science and graduated with an engineering degree.

    I can relate to Lim Swee Say. “When I speak in Mandarin ‘in Singapore’, people will think I’m English-educated. Then when I speak in English ‘in Singapore’, people will think I’m Chinese-educated.”

    From where I’m coming, one of the most criticized accents is the Australians. The feedback the global team gave the Australia office is to speak slower as the world couldn’t understand their natural accent. Ironically, our people (girls) still find the accent “sexy” even though they admit they sometimes don’t understand the accent.

    We are simply too critical on ourselves. We could change this mindset, feel good about our languages and invest our time to speak confidently.

  24. It is a false delimma that we could only speak Mandarin or English. It did not mean that not learning Chinese would naturally make us speak Queen’s English.

    Could we stop blaming Chinese for our poor command of English, we should improve and respect both languages, in terms of its education and our sttitudes.

  25. learning something extra does take time and resources off learning english. to turn it around, it is also not true that not learning chinese will result in zero improvement in other area. on the contrary, schools and parents and students will definitely have more time for english. whether they make the most of the additional time depends on the circumstances, but the point is that they will have more time.

  26. mad chinaman on

    it should be: the past FEW education ministers all can’t speak mandarin (one of them is non-chinese though).

    when i was in Hwa Chong JC, the top JC with a long history of chinese tradition, the principal also couldn’t speak mandarin even though he’s chinese. now when my child is in a SAP primary school, with the so-called bi-cultural programmes, the principal too can’t speak mandarin.

    to me personally, this shows the “importance” of chinese language education. it’s one thing to just say chinese is important, it’s quite another thing when so many elite government leaders and their children can’t even master basic conversational mandarin.

    i have decided for my children that they shouldn’t take chinese too seriously. just get an A (if possible) and forget about it. i’m just being pragmatic. in singapore, one will survive well if he can speak and write good english. on the other hand, if he speaks and writes good chinese, he may not even get a job.

    and if my kids have the time (which i doubt), i will personally teach them about the chinese culture and history, so they can “stay rooted to the Chinese heritage” (quoting what the blogger said above). but given my limited half-baked knowledge, i doubt i’ll do a good job in this aspect. 🙂

  27. English Speaker on

    For sure. Taking away some load will definitely provide more resources to focus on other subjects.

    Instead of reducing the focus on Chinese or languages, why not have less weightage on sciences? The nation doesn’t need that much engineers anyway.

  28. keynesian slave on

    It seems that the implicit assumption most people have here is that in trying to gain proficiency in two languages, you will invariably compromise on your mastery of both. I disagree with that. I believe the human aptitude for learning is much strong than what reflected here and it would be disgraceful to settle for a lowest common denominator.

    I really think it is the mindset that is the greatest impediment towards mastery of languages, more than the rote-learning used to teach Chinese in schools.

    Just look at how public interest in the subject arose only when plans to reduce Chinese PSLE weightage were shelved. It seems that the teaching of languages is viewed upon as nothing more than a means towards the end in the form of an aggregated academic standing. That is simply not the right way to inspire interest in any language or subject for that matter. What really needs to be done is to change the way languages are taught to inspire students to learn more about the language on their own.

  29. pardon guys, I do believe that chinese is indispensable simply because we are chinese and we should not forsake our root.

    In fact, I major in Chinese and minor in translation and intend to pursue a masters degree in English in the near future. Nothing is impossible where there’s a will, there’s a way. 😉

  30. sorry for the grammatical error. it’s “when” not “where”. I guess I am too critical of myself. haha.

  31. Agree with Isaac. My heart tells me that we should learn Chinese for the simple reason that we are Chinese. But the rational part of me also thinks, so what if we only speak English. Does it make us a lesser person?

  32. Learning Chinese because we are Chinese is a dubious reason at best. If we go back to the beginning of time, there weren’t any Chinese, etc, etc. I am not even sure what language was spoken back then, but I know we are not speaking it now.

    Also, before the advent of the Qin dynasty there were a lot more Chinese dialects, etc spoken before the Qin Emperor (thankfully) wiped out most of them. Come on, do we really need a thousand ways to say “I, you, me, etc”? Do you need to dig up old dead languages if you happen to be able to trace your ancestry to 7 centuries ago?

    As usual, be practical. Languages are invented so people can communicate. There are no inherent value to languages itself outside of it.

  33. Is it always about practicality and utilitarian benefits? Is language not also about identity and cultural roots? Our ancestors may not speak Mandarin but I thought the Chinese dialects share a common structure and the written word. I remember my grandma could read the Chinese papers although she couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. That said, I sometimes wonder where the line should be drawn at cultural roots. One could argue that we should craft a Singapore identity based not on the languages (Chinese, Malay, Tamil, etc) our forefathers speak, but on what we are comfortable with.

  34. I can see where you’re getting at, although I haven’t been to Singapore so I can’t guess how the situation really is.

    I am a British Born Chinese, Chinese was my first language, once I started school however, needless to say my English took over, by A LOT. My dad noticed this and made a rule, he BANNED the use of English in the house and around family(mainly parents) I was only allowed to speak Chinese with them. As strange as this sounds, I am glad he did it, my Chinese now is still not that good but it can get me by. I don’t have a foreign accent while I speak it, so that’s good. My listening’s pretty good just my speaking is not very fluent. My vocabulary list is limited.

    However, I am happy about what I know so far, because I know some people who can’t speak Chinese at all but they are Chinese. They can’t even write their names, I can’t write Chinese but I was at least taught my name. I think it’s not a matter of “if it will be useful or profit me in the future”, it should be because it’s part of you. And if you want to learn it then great, if not then don’t.

  35. Education itself is a lifelong process.Too many people associate learning with money. In fact, too many people in Singapore are obsessed with money and power.Singaporeans should travel more to those less fortunate countries and see how they live. They are poor, but much happier than us.

  36. I love chinese, because it is an interesting language. I just feel that it is more than just a subject itself. Being Chinese, its part of our roots and culture. I just dont think that its right to focus only on Eng language when you are a Chinese and your native language is actually Chinese. (Dont deny the fact that your predecessors come from China) Afterall, English is not our native langugage, it still comes from the Westerners. Even if you hate Chinese, no matter what the reason may be, respect should still be given to the language. Its like if you are a Japanese who dont speak Japanese or a Korean who dont speak Korean, that’s disgraceful.

  37. I found it rather strange that people would go around labelling others as “disgraceful” simply because they do not or cannot speak the language of their ethnicities. Does anyone know why language was created? For Chinese language lovers, why did Shih Huang Ti abolished all the other dialects and exerted Chinese to be the sole unifying language? The fundamental principle of the creation of language is for communication purpose. Why does it matter whether a Chinese can speak only English as long as he/she is comprehensible to others? One has to understand that NOT every person in this world has the avenues to be in touch with their ethnic language. Chinese people who live in Singapore or Malaysia may not be able to visualise it but the closest example would be our own neighbour, Indonesia. Following the overthrow of Sukarno, the Chinese language was completely prohibited and Chinese Indonesians had to change all their original surnames to resemble those of the natives. I am not trying to raise a nationalistic or racial issue but my point is, there are a lot of Chinese in the world who do not have the luxury or opportunities to learn the language and they should not be condemned as being “disgraceful”. Judging a person by the language he/she speaks is totally absurd. As much as the Chinese language needs to be respected, the people who cannot speak a single word of it deserves just as much respect.

  38. I’m watching the 4 presidential candidates speaking Mandarin on channel 8 now (one of them didn’t even speak in Mandarin).


    No wonder the Chinese language is not important in Singapore. Almost all of our government leaders are lousy Mandarin speakers. I bet they can’t write well either. So why are they making our children learn the language? Set a good example first!

    Btw, the candidates’ spoken English aren’t that good either.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  39. Chelsey Young on

    It is important to learn both chinese and english language. It will greatly benefit any career that a person will get into.

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