Don't call it a spade
Language is Culture
Damn, New York Times link show up automatically like Tweets now. Talk about privilege.
Anyway; you know what Gell-Mann amnesia is. You read the news, and assume what you’re reading is, well, worth reading. It’s generally accurate. Then you read something on a topic you have some expertise about, and you find that it’s worse than false. It’s completely inaccurate and misleading. It just shows how the writer has absolutely no clue of what he’s talking about. Then you realize: well, it’s some journalist who has no expertise at all except in writing jargon, of course he has no clue.
Then you go on reading more news. As my mother says, you gotta talk about something.
So the New York Times ran a story on how dialects are back in Singapore. Because they’re, you know, “vibrant”. That’s not how I would describe Hokkien, but then I did study some Hokkien, instead of taking journalism classes. The story itself is not very remarkable, besides how inept and ignorant it is. I’m tempted to just become a Chinese chauvinist and blame the anti-Chinese animus of the American establishment, now shaming Mandarin Chinese as something to be avoided. Then it would make some sort of sense. But as they say, never blame malice what is likely just stupidity.
I guess it’s just me, but I feel there’s few things more harmful than bad linguistics. Take a look at the crap the NYT is trying to pull here:
At the time of the founding of the Republic of Singapore in 1965, it was led by a charismatic and authoritarian prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who was a self-taught linguist. A product of the English-speaking elite who rarely spoke Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, Mr. Lee held the popular idea, discredited by linguists, that language was a zero-sum game: speaking more of one meant less mastery of another.
In short, he considered dialects a waste of the brain’s finite storage capacity when it should be filled with, above all else, English.
“He felt that since he couldn’t do it, the rest couldn’t do it,” said Prof. Lee Cher Leng, a language historian in the China studies department at the National University of Singapore, referring to Mr. Lee’s inability to fluently speak multiple languages. “He felt it would be too confusing for kids to learn the dialects.”
First of all, LKY, peace be with him, was not a “self-taught linguist”. He’s a guy who learned some languages as an adult. That doesn’t make him a linguist. This makes him a language learner. There’s billions of those across the world. Lee Kuan Yew certainly wasn’t very good at it; the ability to learn foreign languages doesn’t correlate very strongly with IQ.
Mr. Lee held the popular idea that language was a zero-sum game? No, Mr. Lee understood the commonsensical idea that your brain has limited storage capacity. Like anything else. Your brain is made of atoms. It is not made of magic. It is not made of godly dust. It is a material thing. It is, in a sense, a container of information, and information takes space. It obviously does in computers; pray tell, NYT, why the brain should have infinite capacity? It doesn’t make sense.
Now I don’t know if LKY thought of it in these terms. I think that, as a language learner, he went by experience. I guess the more time he spent practicing Mandarin, or Hokkien, or Malay, the worse his English prose got. And that’s exactly how it works. Happens to me all the time, and happens to anyone who uses 2 or more languages regularly. The more different the languages, the less commons structures they share, the more acute the problem. Again, there is no reason why it should not be so. Information takes space. It isn’t hard.
Alas, it is true that academic linguists will not tell you this, even though they probably did in the 1950s. That is not because common sense has been “refuted”. It is because since the 1960s academia has morphed into a worldwide racket of fraud and deceit. If you read this blog you already know that; economics is bogus, climate science is bogus, psychology is bogus; even more than half of medical papers are bogus. Well, surprise surprise, linguistics is also bogus. The language learning industry is huge. There’s a lot of money in telling people that the brain is made of magic dust, that they can learn whatever they want whenever they want, as long as they give you money. 3 languages at the same time? Go for it! Kids are like sponges, they can learn anything. No, they can’t.
Now of course, all human traits are distributed in a Gaussian curve. Some kids are pretty good, can learn 3 or 4 languages given some exposure. Some can’t even speak 1 language properly by the time they enter primary school. Lee Kuan Yew, who was in charge of spending Singapore’s money, realized he didn’t have money to waste, and he took what was the most rational decision: let’s focus on having everyone learn English, then let’s make some half-assed effort at teaching a “mother tongue”; mostly for political reasons, so tribalists didn’t complain. Some kids will learn the mother tongue well; most won’t. Not the government’s problem. Lee Kuan Yew was CEO and what he wanted was an efficient workforce, so English it was. And English he got. Well, kind of.
Japanese researchers, fortunately isolated from their American comrades because of their ineptitude at learning English, have long found that Brazilian immigrants in Japan often end up not bilingual, but “halflingual”. They end up speaking shitty Portuguese and even shittier Japanese. Because Japanese is hard, they don’t speak it at home, and whatever they speak at home tends to have very low vocabulary levels. So they end up sounding retarded even if they really aren’t.
You know who else sounds retarded? Singaporeans. OK, sorry, that’s overly harsh. I apologize to my Singaporean readers, I love you all. But I had to say it. With all due respect, Singaporeans in general don’t speak proper English. They speak Singlish, which is a pidgin English with a fair amount of Chinese grammar and vocabulary baked in, and a pretty weird (and what sounds to me a pretty big Indian influence) pronunciation. As you may remember, even Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, by every account a 150 IQ genius, speaks what can only be described as pretty goofy English. Again, it’s not their fault, it’s just the unintended consequence of public language policy.
How did this happen? By forcing diglossia (widespread bilingualism) on Singapore. After independence most people spoke some either Chinese dialect at home, Malay or Tamil. The schools taught English, what is a foreign language to everyone. So yes, they learned, the minimum required to pass the exams, and went on with their daily lives. Given that kids spent almost more time at school than at home, eventually the exposure of English was greater than their respective languages. Let’s say a random Singaporean teen was exposed to 65% English and 35% Hokkien during their formative years. So, surprise surprise, he ended up speaking a language which is 65% English and 35% Hokkien, and so did most everyone else, with all languages and dialects getting some of their stuff in this hodgepodge lingua franca that evolved into Singlish. And once that got widespread it became almost impossible to change.
If Singaporeans speak bad English, their Mandarin is even worse. I’ve seen business owners who couldn’t even write it. Again, I don’t blame them. Chinese is hard, especially the writing system. I’m pretty sure Lee Kuan Yew was never very good at writing it. And most likely he never thought most Singaporeans would be able too. But he had two good reasons to teach Mandarin to every Chinese in Singapore. First; some talented people would learn it, and Singapore needed those people to go make business in China. And second, dialects had to be stamped out. Chinese people were extremely clannish back in the day. They still are in some parts of China. Liberals think dialects are like race, this colorful thing that adds vibrancy points to a culture. But no. Race is in your genes, you are born with that. You can’t change it. But dialect is a choice. Even if your parents teach it to you, children will forget it very soon, just as they forget everything their parents try to teach them.
Dialects survive because of a political choice. Language is a badge of loyalty; speaking Hokkien or Cantonese instead of Mandarin means that, as a child, you’ve reached the conclusion that Hokkien is more useful than Mandarin. Singapore, as all societies of Southeastern Chinese ancestry. used to be run by small dialect and family based societies, who did their thing unbeknownst to the state. Imperial China was laissez-faire about this kind of clan-based society, but Lee Kuan Yew was a legalist, and he had to crush them to impose his authority. So crush them they did. Once the clans were crushed, speaking dialect stopped working as a signal; and so the signal died. Whatever the NYT says, dialects aren’t coming back. There’s no money there, and Asia doesn’t trade in those vibrancy points which make New York housewives happy.
Why did Irish die soon after Irish independence? The signal wasn’t needed anymore. They had their own country, and God knows speaking Irish is a costly signal. Hokkien or Cantonese aren’t that costly for a competent Mandarin speaker, but they aren’t cheap either, so most likely this “dialect revival” is just 10 bored housewives who happen to eat in the same noodle joint as the NYT correspondent there. Fake news, as usual.
What the article gets right is the cultural desert that Singapore became after LKY enforced the power of the state and broke every intermediate society. There’s a lesson there: high cultural output depends on the identity of a people. It’s a political statement. It thrives on conflict. But Lee Kuan Yew would have none of that. He had a multiracial to run in a very delicate balance, and he couldn’t risk people developing a cultural identity without things spiraling out of control. He couldn’t tolerate cultural diversity; but he, cursed by the knowledge of HBD, wouldn’t allow race mixing. So he was left with a multicultural society where conflict wasn’t allowed. So the culture died. Romans stop producing good literature after the Empire. Nobody remembers the great books written by the Ottomans. And I wonder if in the future anybody will remember the Singaporeans at all.