Here’s some advice from someone who has not passed a single Chinese exam since 2009.
I have always been terrible at my mother tongue.
After my Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), in which I miraculously got a B for Chinese, I have not passed a single Chinese exam.
Things have not gotten better since graduating from Secondary School and entering a Polytechnic, as I have not touched my mother tongue at all. This caused my fluency in Mandarin to deteriorate to a point where I have an “accent” (or so my friends say).
I used to think that it was no big deal to only be fluent in English. After all, Singapore is a multi-racial country that uses English as its main language. I mean, the only times that I will actually have to speak my mother tongue is when I meet my grandparents or when I am ordering food from a coffee shop, things my mediocre grasp of Mandarin still allowed me to do.
But after a series of awkward and embarrassing incidents that shone a spotlight on my terrible Mandarin, I began to think twice.
For example, I used to work part time at Uniqlo and the majority of my colleagues were of other races. So whenever a mainland Chinese came in to enquire about clothing sizes or what not, I was usually the first one tasked to address them.
Most of the time, I was completely useless at communicating with them and the episode would end with a disappointed customer and an embarrassed retail staff (me).
Another incident was during my third year of Polytechnic. We had a module where we were assigned clients to do campaigns for. Turns out the client we got preferred to converse in…you guessed it…Mandarin.
I was lucky that I had some Chinese classmates in my project group, but I sure would have felt a lot more useful if I was actually able to have a proper dialogue with our client.
Mother tongue is something that requires a solid foundation to be able to learn. In my case, I neglected the foundation in primary school and look how it played out.
What I am saying is that you should continue using or even practicing your mother tongue, for you never know when you might need it. It will definitely pay off and save you from difficult situations.
Having a good grasp of your mother tongue will also allow you to have meaningful conversations with your more traditional relatives. Cough *Chinese New Year* cough.
I do joke around with my friends about my horrible Mandarin from time to time. They will ask me to try and read Mandarin words and my inability to always results in a good laugh.
But deep down, I wish that I was better in my mother tongue.
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