Language Insensitivity Depresses Me: Glad that Minister Lim Boon Heng Brought this Up in 2005

I have often felt saddened when I want to apply for a job that seems so perfect. I have met the criteria in every way. They even asked for a good command of written and spoken English. And then I scroll down and I know that my application will most likely be tossed aside. You see, I can’t speak or write Mandarin, and this is what is being increasingly asked for. Some adverts state bilingual, but others specify the languages. Perhaps I am just not looking hard enough these days, because of the dejection I felt in the past.

Sorry to bring this up now, but I felt marginalized when sometimes at work my bosses and colleagues spoke to each other in a language I could not understand and I was right there. I wouldn’t mind so much if they did not speak English. But both of them did. I will just assume that caught up in the excitement of the conversation, they did not realize that it made me feel totally disregarded and invisible.

It is very depressing to me. It feels like a temporary wall that has been put up. I just want to say, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine being the one who does comprehend a word. It can be alienating.

On the other hand there were colleagues who were kind enough and would realize in mid conversation and then would always explain or point it out to the others. To them I am grateful.

For my part I also stop people from talking in Tamil when there are non-Tamil speakers present. I remind them that it’s rude. I understand them, but I feel terrible for the person sitting next to me who doesn’t and can only stare blankly in discomfort. I also feel embarrassed about the rudeness.

A friend related to me how when they went to France, everyone was speaking in French for hours, and she felt so lost. To me that would have been a nightmare. It’s embarrassing. You don’t know where to look, because basically, unless there someone translating, there is no one is talking to you, so you might as well not even be there. So language insensitivity is not exclusive to Singapore or to any one language.

On the other hand when I visited Taiwan, vendors who could not speak English, made so much effort with sign language and that touched me. It was like charades, but at least there was a effort to communicate and mutual respect.

This is from Lim Boon Heng’s speech from 2005 when he was Secretary-General of the NTUC and I just want to thank him for being sensitive to the feelings of the minority groups.

We have to acknowledge that ignorance exists. It has led to Malays and Indians feeling discriminated when they look for jobs. Some say that employers ask whether they can speak Mandarin. The few who responded that they can were then asked if they could write Chinese. Employers should stop such tactics. Businesses thrive here because we have a harmonious society. If any minority group feels strongly that there is discrimination, there will be tension. Such tension can break down the harmony we have so painstakingly built up. Therefore all employers should play their part, and recruit on the basis of merit, not of race or religion. We have established a tripartite Code of Employment Practice. It is in our collective interest to observe this Code. It is in employers self-interest to observe this Code.

I am also glad whenever Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reminds us that English is the language of Business here and I am always happy that PAP leaders speak in this language of business and that minorities are taken care of when it comes to the government sector.

Just the other day I heard from friends that the same language situation happens at meetings at work and then someone realizes and midway they bashfully remind their colleagues that a non-Mandarin speaker is present. They put it in a humorous way. No channel 8, change to channel 5 please. This is not about race, because the excluded person could also be the same race but not speak the same language.

I always feel so guilty and feel awful to bring up this issue, because it is just so sensitive. But it troubles me to no end and if I don’t bring it up now, I don’t know when I will. How can people be more sensitive if they are not even aware there is a problem. I just want to help improve the situation and create better understanding.

I tried to learn Mandarin, but it’s just too hard for me. I can’t really hear the difference in tones and because the writing system is completely different it’s really a struggle. I guess I am not too capable in picking up a new language at this late stage. They say language acquisition is best before age 3. In a way I find Hokkien so much easier to pick up and there are so many words I understand. I’m not sure why, but it is.

Sigh. I wish I had learnt Mandarin which is now more economically useful in the job market than my mother tongue, especially with the emergence of China. Wish it has been a third language taught in school.

What was great about the time of our parents was that everyone knew Malay as it was taught in school. So there was this other common language, which was great. I enjoyed listening to my parents bargain with Malaysian fruit vendors whenever we travelled to Malaysia, but somehow I didn’t pick up the language.

So these are just the thoughts of someone who just speaks one language well and her second language quite badly.

About bookjunkie

Blogging about life in Singapore helps me survive the mid-life crisis
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3 Responses to Language Insensitivity Depresses Me: Glad that Minister Lim Boon Heng Brought this Up in 2005

  1. Al says:

    Regarding how employers choose candidates, come to think of it, it is discrimination. And if it is so important, the employer can encourage all staff to pick up the language by subsidising lessons. One should not be judged on ability to perform by the languages he/she speaks or doesn’t speak.

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