Mother Tongue?

In response to John Chislett’s letter (September 3) re: Taiwanese students mastering their “mother tongue” before learning English. 
Mr. Chislett would do well to master his own before commenting.  He ends his opening sentence with a preposition, and then asks if students born in a bilingual environment are “encumbered and as a result learn slower?”  Correctly employed, “slower” would be followed by “than” and compare bilingual students to uni-lingual students (or something), but Chislett apparently writes too fastly.

He attacks the phrase “mother tongue,” pins it to the Hakka dialect, and sarcastically asks if Aboriginal children should stop learning Mandarin in order to concentrate on their “mother tongue”.  He clearly misses the point. 

The alleged problem is that early English instruction interferes with developing proficiency in Mandarin – a clear and proper goal of educators in Taiwan, and a requirement for high achievement in a Taiwanese academic setting.   There is inherent value in maintaining Aboriginal cultures and languages.  However, if it is the case that early English instruction interferes with acquiring Mandarin, then it may also be the case that Hakka language instruction raises a similar impediment.  If so, special assistance should be offered to Hakka students in order to maintain their cultural heritage and assure competent Mandarin skills.  Stopping Mandarin instruction is certainly not going to increase proficiency, or the career options of Hakka students. 

Even if one concedes Chislett’s semantic gamesmanship, accepting that Hakka is the “mother tongue” relegates English to, at best, a third language, thus making the issue yet more complex, assuming English acquisition is an eventual goal.  The truth, however, is that his Hakka analogy is unsound and only slightly more relevant to Mandarin proficiency in Taiwan’s classrooms than the withering of Gaelic in Scotland. 

Chislett’s sarcasm reveals an opinion built on form and lacking insight or substance.  
He advises that he’s “a former alumnus” of Taipei American School.  What, then, is a current alumnus?  The redundancy might pass in another context, but the topic is language competency. 
One can only hope Mr. Chislett was not responsible for developing curriculum – in present circumstance potentially a culpable offence. 

His subsequent claim that some T.A.S. students have become successful is anecdotal and utterly useless in formulating policy.  It may be safely assumed that at least some alumni are now unsuccessful (a simple application of the bell curve of life), but perhaps he doesn’t follow their progress quite so closely.

Chislett closes by wondering where Su (the writer who initially provoked his capricious pen) did his research.  Then, in an unreferenced statement, asserts that two of three Taiwanese are bilingual and managing their schoolwork quite well.  One wonders where Chislett did his research, how he managed to assess the quality of the academic work of the majority of Taiwanese students and cross-reference individual academic performance to language ability.  

I have not researched the matter and must, therefore, rely on a few years of teaching English to Taiwanese students as a basis for my opinion. 
I have seen, albeit very rarely, young children who speak English very well yet struggle with Mandarin (or so I’m told…I’m in no position to assess anyone’s Chinese language skills).
The reverse – Mandarin proficiency and weak English – is far more common.  Whether early English instruction helped or hindered their progress in Mandarin is unclear.  It certainly helps their English.

I have taught children who, in addition to their regular nine hours of daily academic torture, receive English, German and Spanish lessons at home, take piano, cello and violin lessons in the evenings, and attend swimming and kung fu lessons on the weekend.  The live-in is teaching them Tagalog.  They will both be doctors because Daddy said so.

One might ask if the sheer volume of instruction Taiwanese students endure each day is not a more substantial obstacle than being exposed to a second (or third) language at an early age.  Of course, two doctors in the family is a pretty good outcome – tough to argue with results like that.

The educational system in Taiwan is evolving, consistent with the growth of Taiwan and its emergence on the world stage over the past 20 years.  The academic progress and social development of Taiwanese children will be dramatically affected by the nature and quality of the instruction provided in this hectic environment.  It is important that insightful, experienced people with reasoned opinions are consulted; that informed advice is sought, duly considered and reasonably implemented. 

John Chislett’s myopic, ill-considered and sarcastic letter prompts me to reply, in closing, by paraphrasing (perhaps even accidentally quoting) Winston Churchill:  “Your right to an opinion does not obligate me to take you seriously.”


2 Responses

  1. Mr. B.: I don’t know how old “Mother Tongue?” is, it lacks a full date, but it rings true. The education and social system in Twn does demand at lot, but it’s children who have all the potential; their brains and hearts are sponges, while ours are mostly petrified. Perhaps, had I the chance, cello lessons would have served me better than back alley races with ‘borrowed’ Safeway carts.

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