Being born and raised in Singapore typically means you speak two languages: your “mother tongue” – I’ll explain the quotation marks in a bit – and English, generally termed as a “working language” and practically employed as a lingua franca – in the form of Singlish – in this multi-ethnic city.
The unfortunate outcome of this system is you’re linguistically boxed in based on your ethnicity. I’m an ethnic Chinese, so officially Chinese – more specifically, Mandarin – is my “mother tongue” and English is my … “working tongue”? “Common tongue”? I’m also expected to be as fluent in Chinese (perhaps more?) as in English.
Here’s the problem: Chinese is not what my mother or my father or anybody in my extended family speak. My parents come from very different Chinese dialect groups, and they generally use either Hokkien (a common Chinese dialect in Singapore) or English at home. When time came for me to attend school, I naturally latched on to English as Mandarin (or more officially “Chinese”) was – and will always be – a foreign language to me. To make matters worse, ethnic Chinese who didn’t take too well to Mandarin were – and still sometimes are – subtly branded as people who didn’t know or abandoned their “roots.”
So I followed Ricky Nelson’s advice, flipped off the Speak Mandarin campaigns, and embraced English as the language that would define me to the world and vice versa. I gorged myself on all sources of English I could find: school books, library books, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, a glut of Hollywood movies, and my father’s vinyl collection of mainly 60s American pop and rock. I eventually built up my own collection of music and movies, all in English. In the meantime, I was compelled to continue painfully embarrassing Chinese lessons at school which I stopped as soon as the education system allowed me to.
Fast forward to the present. My English turned out pretty okay, and I have decided to learn German on my own and added a few conditions to up the challenge:
- I may use only free resources available online (e.g., Duolingo, Busuu, Deutsche Welle) or at the Public Libraries.
- I am not allowed sign up for formal classes (e.g., Goethe Institut) or purchase language learning aids (e.g., Rosetta Stone).
- I am not allowed to go on immersion trips to Germany or Austria or Switzerland. (I don’t have the money anyway.)
- I am not allowed to get extensive help from German-speaking friends.
- By 1 January 2015, I must be able to pass a test at Level B1 (as set by Deutsche Welle), which would probably put my German competency somewhere around the level of the average youth.
Can I do it? Or have I simply set myself yet another unattainable goal (like I have done a million times before)? But before I answer that, I want to address two frequent questions whenever I reveal my plan to learn German:
Q1: Why choose to learn another language now?
A: I’m middle-aged. I’m supposed to have an insatiable need to jump into stupid personal projects now. (Just kidding; I’m stupid all the time.)
Q2: Why German, of all languages?
A: This one’s a bit harder to answer. I guess it’s has to do with a sort of inexplicable affinity. Besides American culture and ideals, I admire many aspects of German culture. I dig a lot of German philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Gadamer); many of my favorite classical music pieces come from German composers (okay, technically only two of them were born in present-day Germany), and a number of my favorite films are German (Das Boot, The Lives of Others, The Princess and the Warrior). In any case, it makes way, way, way more sense for me to learn German as a second language compared to Mandarin as English and German are closely related.
Now back to the question of whether I can succeed. As you can see, I’m basically applying my experience in learning English to German. The only difference is that the challenge is heightened by the lack of the German language in everyday Singapore life, compared to English. To mitigate the increased difficulty, this is what I’m already doing or intend to do:
- Switch the main language on my computers, tablets and phones to German.
- Go through as many of the books on learning German as possible that are now available at the Public Libraries.
- Listening to as much German-language music and radio as possible via Spotify and TuneIn.
- Re-watch all the German movies I have.
- Read an article daily from Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Deutsche Welle, etc.
- Practice German daily using Duolingo.
Looking at it now, it’s really quite possible create an environment that “immerses” you in the German language even in Singapore, thanks to the Internet and the Public Libraries.
Of course, my success – or failure – remains to be seen. I’ll be sharing some of the library resources I’m using as well as some nice Deutsche rap I’ve discovered on Spotify soon. Stay tuned.