Posted by: rbbadger | September 21, 2008

An inspiring story for language learners

When I was in Hong Kong last, I picked up a copy of a quite inspiring book at the Hong Kong Book Centre.  It is entitled Keeping My Mandarin Alive and is written by the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore was a British colony for a long time.  Minister Mentor Lee, like many Singaporeans, had been educated by the British.  His family often spoke English at home, despite the fact that they, like most people in Singapore, were ethnically Chinese.  Thus, he found himself not being able to speak the language very well at all.  When he went to England to study and met up with fellow Chinese, he spoke of feeling ashamed that he couldn’t really speak the language of his fellow Chinese people.

At the same time that he was leading his country to independence, into the Malaysian Federation and back out again, he had also begun intensive study of the Chinese language.  He eventually got quite good at it, though he bemoans the fact that his Chinese will never be as good as his English.  Age 35 is not the reccommended age to become fluent in a second language, though there are those, such as Mario Pei, who have a special ability to pick up languages very easily.  Minister Mentor Lee was 35 when he really began serious study of the language.  At age 38, he began his study of Hokkien, a regionalect of Chinese (I really hesitate to call it a dialect, as it, like Cantonese, differs greatly from standard Mandarin) in order to win an election in a Hokkien-dominated district.  He eventually gave Hokkien up, but never did give up the study of Mandarin.

Minister Mentor Lee is now in his 80s.  Owing to his long service as the Prime Minister (he took office in 1959 and resigned in 1990 having been Singapore’s first and only Prime Minister since independence), he was offered a post in the cabinet where he remains today as Minister Mentor.  He still continues his study of the language every day and has Chinese lessons weekly.  To continue learning into your 80s and 90s is an admirable thing.  He writes about learning how to use English word processors in his 70s, not to mention Chinese ones which he also uses frequently.

Korean is an exceptionally difficult language.  So is Chinese.  But if you have the will and the tenacity to never give up, it is possible to master it.  But it won’t be easy.

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