Lost in Translation

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Soh Ying Qi (18A01C)

My mother, a staunch believer in the value of a Chinese education, has all but given up on trying to convert me. A few years ago, she decided everyone in the house needed to speak more Mandarin; the following weeks were a constant clash of cultures, during which I spoke to her only in English and she reciprocated by replying in Mandarin. This kept up for ages, until eventually I must have worn her down: I don’t remember the last time I said something to her in anything other than English.

Admittedly, my experience is a rather extreme one. While most Rafflesians (by virtue of attending a school set up by British colonists) have probably experienced that feeling of gradual distance from one’s own language and culture, few have taken their defense of their changing cultural affiliations to the extent that I have. Along with it comes the guilt that pricks at one’s soul, the smidgen of shame that accompanies the abandonment—some would say betrayal—of one’s own heritage.

Why, then, does this phenomenon—which is certainly not isolated to the Chinese community—seem so widespread? Why is it that we continue to speak English over our native tongues, to reject our own culture in favour of another?

Almost instinctively we think of Western influence. We blame the British for bringing English to the colonies, the meteoric rise of the USA as a global power, the internet for bringing us Western entertainment. Yet the responsibility does not solely lie with foreign actors. Despite being only one of four official languages in Singapore, English functions as our lingua franca due to its status as a common language that allows inter-ethnic communication. Imagine having any of the other official languages take on the role of English, and the problems associated with this arrangement quickly become clear.

The multilingual danger signs across the island are a familiar sight (Source)

The widely asserted claim that Westernisation comes with negative consequences certainly has some truth to it. The most common argument is that a person who cannot speak their native language will become a societal laughingstock for being “out of touch”; losing the ability to speak a language also necessarily entails losing, to some extent, one’s unique connection to the culture surrounding it, which allows us to better understand ourselves as individuals.

Of course, it is easy to nod along to these theoretical platitudes without understanding the real world consequences of losing touch with your culture. Even at the ripe old age of 16, I don’t speak a lick of Hokkien and still can’t use chopsticks “the right way”. I have friends who write essays with the kind of SAT vocabulary most of us can only dream of, but who flatly refuse to utter a word of their mother tongue even in casual conversation. We know every word to every English pop song at the top of the charts, but burst into ridicule when we hear a vernacular radio station on air, before quickly changing channels.

Now, I speak Mandarin with the kind of lilting accent and sluggish pace that is more often associated with foreign-language learners, constrained by thoughts in English that I cannot translate. When shopkeepers converse with me in Mandarin, I scramble to formulate something resembling a coherent response. The experience has certainly been disorienting, to say the least—if I do not know enough of my own language to speak it, never mind my own culture, then who am I, really?

Yet, a part of me continues to wonder if shifting cultural ties are necessarily all bad. Dare I venture that they could instead open our eyes to different perspectives, allowing us to interact with cultures other than our own? No one would deny that having a good grasp of English opens doors: to educational and career prospects, to new sources of information, and the ability to converse with a larger group of people worldwide. The problem arises, according to most, when one’s affinity for a foreign culture begins to exceed that for one’s own. The public backlash is most evident in the myriad of food-related derogatory terms used to describe such people: “bananas”, “coconuts”, “Twinkies”, and in international settings, “apples” and “Oreos”. All convey the same basic meaning: “non-white on the outside, white on the inside”, suggesting a fundamental rejection of one’s own heritage in favour of another.

The famed Twinkie: yellow on the outside, white on the inside, and the source of many a race-based insult (Source)

Certainly this is a valid concern. But there are other ways to view such cultural changes. Your own culture is not something that ever leaves you; nothing is going to change the fact that I was born Chinese and that Mandarin is my mother tongue. Given this established reality, why not branch out to enrich one’s worldview with knowledge of other communities, knowing that your connection to your own will remain secure? (Of course, not everyone may preserve such a deep relationship with their heritage, as the latter is ultimately something that each individual must define for themselves.)

As an ELL student, I find myself in the unusual position of defending the rise of English as something we should embrace. Language change is a natural phenomenon, one that is difficult—even impossible—to counter fully, and brings with it accompanying cultural changes. The key is to make sure that in acquiring these new perspectives and acquainting ourselves with things beyond our own knowledge, we do not also lose sight of where we came from and who we are.

Japan is an excellent example of how this may be achieved: famed for its technological achievements and ability to modernise, it nevertheless remains steeped in native culture, honouring age-old customs and practices. This creates a perfect balance of tradition and modernity, ensuring that contemporary Japanese society is able to adapt to global change while also maintaining its connection to its history and culture.

With more than 1 billion speakers (both native and non-native) worldwide, English is not set to go away anytime soon. Neither are the countries and communities in which it first originated, and each of their unique cultures. While it is difficult to say if it will ever suffer the same fate as Latin did centuries ago, in the meantime people all over the world will have to adapt to its newfound status by accommodating its use, and accepting that foreign cultures will continue to assert their place in local society. In the process of this adjustment, it is important not to make judgments about the inherent value of certain cultural affiliations, by rejecting the notion that some are supposedly “better” than others.

Where it all began: across the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away. (Source)

English propagated in Singapore as locals began to view it as a gateway to a better future; decades later, the situation is arguably still the same. In an increasingly competitive local environment, the West has become the land of dreams, where opportunities abound and promises wait to be fulfilled. However, even as it establishes a foothold in Singapore, wary natives continue to condemn the dangers of too much cultural immersion, citing a loss of national and individual identity. The result? We are caught in a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, pulled apart by both sides, simply praying we don’t fall through the cracks.

Still, there are times when I hear a snippet of dialogue in a Chinese film, and wonder how I could have forgotten the subtle beauty of the language I grew up with. There are times where I miss the Chinese songs my grandmother used to sing, finding their English counterparts a poor substitute. It may be said that despite the winds of change that everyone gets caught up in, your culture is always going to be a fundamental part of who you are. There are times, more often than I care to admit, when the culture that I tried so hard to abandon comes rushing back to me: waiting, all this time, for me to come back home.


(Cover image source: https://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-12728114-stock-footage-speech-bubbles-with-hello-on-different-languages.html)

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