Multi-lingualism & Social Identities


“What role can Singapore play in enriching the dialogue between East and West?” – Dr. Helena Gao

Recently began attending a series of discussions organised by Para Limes on “East-West” issues, the first of which was chaired by Dr. Helena Gao, linguistics researcher and director of NTU’s Bilingual Development Lab, and held on 11 May 2017.

#1 It’s Real.

We began by first recognising that the “East-West” divide is real. That it might be / could be / is (merely) a “construct” doesn’t subtract from its realness.

A series of quick-fire responses from the attendees threw up several arenas where this divide has been observed – medicine as deconstructed or holistic, perception of time, mind-body dualism or unity, emphasis on the self/local or the society/circumstantial.

#2 The Trappings are Real too.

Where does the East end and the West begin? Yes, a question of “East vs. West” provokes intuitive responses from the crowd – hence, the juxtaposition is legitimate – but the exact boundaries of this comparison remain unclear. There’re different definitions of the “East” and the “West” depending on subject domains, the ultimate aims of the speaker/writer, and they could change over time.

In research, we set up working definitions.

Uncomfortable as it might be, starting somewhere is important. What’s more, we’re reminded of the realness of the E-W divide all the time, through interactions with peers from different parts of the world who have been influenced unequally by different intellectual traditions and cultures, and by proclamations by the media, pop-academics, politicians, and even think tanks.

Really, however much of a construct this E-W divide might be, it’s important to tussle with it, especially since it’s been taken as a given in far too many places.

*Also, conflation of E-W divide with Modernity-Pre-modernity divide.

Highlighted by one of the attendees that, this phenomenon of the E-W divide can in part be attributed to the tensions between yearnings of “modernity” (largely associated with “Western” Enlightenment and culture these days) and existing states of “pre-modernity” (in countries and regions of “Eastern” descent). This conflation deserves further interrogation in the future.

#3 Language Carries Culture; Linguistic Differences Reify Cultural Differences

For the lack of a better verb, language carries culture. Languages form as responses to the need for communication, within particular contexts. As these contexts and agents change over time, languages too evolve. Linguistic features, in their own ways, embody normative positions and shared histories of a particular sociolinguistic group. Linguistic differences among these groups, then, likely reify the abstract differences in values and paradigms held by these different peoples.

Bilingual = Bicultural?

Dr. Gao pushed this intimate link between language and culture further by suggesting that our use of two or more multiple languages makes us bi- and multi-cultural.

A Thai student chimed in that he thought the English language consists of more “causal words” than Thai. He also cited his experiences communicating with his mother in Thai and in English, and shared that they were more likely to disagree when conversing in two different languages. The speculation was that, perhaps, by speaking two languages, they drew upon two differing sets of underlying core beliefs, world views, and values, and thus were more prone to disagreements.

#4 Languages as a Point of Incision into Social Identities

Social Identities differ from Self Identities in that, social identities are derived from perceived membership in a particular social group. Since language carries culture, Dr. Gao suggested that by examining the differences in languages (and even in tone, vocabulary, accent, etc. in the same language) that we employ when speaking to different people in our everyday life, we could peer into the social identities we possess and begin to question how important these languages are in the construction of these identities, and whether these languages (along with their cultures) – especially when divided into Western and Eastern ones – cause divisions in Singaporean society.

Are we capable of code-switching when speaking to different segments of this multicultural society? Are we open-minded and dexterous enough to confidently and gracefully hold different social identities within ourselves?

Comparing Singapore with Switzerland, Dr. Gao intuited that since Switzerland has four languages practiced in geographical isolation while Singapore has four languages with one primary language (English – almost 100% of the resident population speaks it) and a close secondary language (Mandarin – almost 75% of the same), Singapore, with its policies and context, might just possess some insight to this multicultural challenge.

It’s just struck me that, given such a proposition, perhaps there is such a meaningful role for Singapore in enriching and facilitating the dialogue between the “East” and the “West”, but if and only if her people continue to grapple with multilingualism, multiculturalism, and the dexterity required of a nation of multiple, interchangeable social identities.

#5 Formality, Power and Authority in Languages (and Cultures) Unite Us All

The parting note? That formality and power in languages, both Eastern and Western, unite us all.

By comparing simple examples of differences in tone and vocabulary between an English child’s conversations with his mother and teacher, we identified the familiar code-switching in formality that happens when we speak to persons of varying authority and personal importance. And when we speak of them with other people.

But there is neither East nor West…

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

The Ballad of East and West by Rudyard Kipling, oft-misquoted without the third and fourth line and, really, has nothing much to do with the “East” nor “West”.


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