I am a Malaysian Chinese. Although my parents can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, English is primarily spoken at home. I can understand some Cantonese, but can't exactly speak it. I've lived in Australia longer than I have in Malaysia. I attended Chinese school for a few years, but I took it for granted.
I regret not paying attention in Saturday Chinese school. From my experience, growing up in Australia as a child, I felt a little embarrassed to embrace the language amongst my peers. It sounds ridiculous, but I feared being called the term "FOB" -- Fresh Off the Boat. It also doesn't help that my name isn't anglicized.
However, when I visited Beijing at the age of 14, I saw the importance of Chinese. I stayed with my Singaporean relatives, who were expats there. Prior to that trip, I didn't know much about the expatriate community in China. But what I discovered was that there are many expats in Beijing who hold high positions in companies, and my relatives really showed me the importance of knowing the language. Last year, I visited Lucerne, renowned for its watches. I was astonished to observe that there were either Chinese assistants or Swiss workers who could speak Mandarin in high-end luxury watch shops due to the high demands of Chinese customers. Languages can ultimately open up opportunities, especially for careers.
In my opinion, today, learning a language isn't stressed enough, and isn't enforced at a young age, which is arguably the optimal time to start learning a language. When I was a kid, I wasn't inspired to learn another language because I simply thought it was insignificant. I thought, "Well, if I live in Australia, all I need to know is English, right?"
But when you enter a foreign country, how can you get around? If you put a little bit of effort into learning phrases, locals will appreciate it. Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
Currently, I'm learning French in school. I love learning it -- some aspects of it are similar to English, and not to mention it sounds lovely. It's interesting to learn about the French education system and dissect the meaning of colloquial expressions. I was inspired to continue French because I've had a teacher who made class interesting. He could throw in little facts about French word derivatives; e.g, "le gymnase" comes from the Greek word "gymnos," which means naked. Athletes would train nude back in the day! I'm also lucky to have a brilliant French tutor; we go through abstract French poems, articles, tongue twisters and converse as much as possible in French. I hope that in the future when I travel to France, I can put my French to use.
Perhaps, schools should rethink the approach of teaching. Students aren't going to be inspired by learning rigid techniques, solely by a textbook. We should be encouraging one another to learn other languages.
Fundamentally, if we study a language, it allows us to delve into understanding cultures, history and foreign ideas. It gives learners the ability to have a different perspective and context. It's just like when I wrote about the importance of traveling, you can broaden your horizons when you expose yourself to different cultures. It is important to be culturally aware, so that as global citizens we can understand different beliefs and see beyond stereotypes. This way we can break the barriers of cultural insensitivity and build stronger relationships internationally.
All those years of Chinese school wasted, my Mandarin is very primitive. By the time I discovered the importance of the language, it was a little too late to master the language in high school. However, I plan to study the language sometime in the future and hopefully become more fluent. Anyone can learn a language, no matter how young or old you are.