How do we become confident in a language?

by Woo Yen Yen

An English teacher’s journey towards getting her daughter to learn Chinese.

 In this four-part series, former New York-based professor and “ang moh pai” (Western-Educated) English teacher Dr. Woo Yen Yen went from being that student who ripped up her Chinese textbook to writing Chinese comics and a giant musical that toured 25 cities in China. She shares her journey and how she got her American-born daughter with zero Chinese to thrive in an all-Chinese instruction Taiwanese public school.

This series of lectures was produced for the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Mother Tongues Languages Symposium 2020 and supported by the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

#speakmandarincampaign #bilingualism #chineseeducation #comics #multicultural #bilingualeducation

How do we build confidence in speaking a language?

In trying to speak what we think is the “correct” way, we sometimes lose “our own way”.

In a context where we increasingly have to speak to people from all over the world, is it more important to be “correct” or more important to be “confident”?

There’s a phenomenon amongst many Singaporeans where our accents shift to mimic whomever we’re speaking to, whether it’s a Californian or a Beijinger. This often leads to feeling tongue-tied, where in the midst of conversation, we’re anxious about whether our vocabulary, pronunciation and linguistic ability passes the standards of whomever we’re conversing with. So we stumble, and beat ourselves up over Singlish and our Singaporean style Mandarin.

On the other hand, there are Singaporeans like my uncle. He conducts business in multiple countries and speaks multiple languages. He is doesn’t have a college degree nor does he speak any of the languages particularly well, but when people are around him, they look past his fluency because he always makes you feel like he’s your friend. He told me that Teochew in particular has served him very well because in his industry, many business owners throughout Southeast Asia are all Teochew speakers. Even though he’s not Teochew, he has rapidly learned enough of it to serve his customers. He could be called someone who is “culturally intelligent”, and his cultural intelligence has enabled him to function in our globalized world and maximize the opportunities afforded him.

In our process of language learning and teaching, how do we build cultural competence and confidence, beyond learning to read and write in the language?

One reason that many of us who are “well-schooled” in languages in Singapore feel tongue-tied and need time to process in our heads before speaking is because we have taken to the habit of labeling ourselves. We judge each other based on a hierarchy of high and low linguistic abilities. We call ourselves Chinese-ed and English-ed, Channel 8 or Channel 5, or “Cheenapiang” or “Ang mo pai”, “Chinese Helicopter” or “Banana”; “Jiak Kantang” type or “Jiak Png” type.

These linguistic labels have power. They have the power to “include” as well as “exclude”. When meeting someone, these labels help us identity who is “like me” and who is “the other.” Often, they also help us make decisions about everyday life, like which schools to send our own children to.

Kids in Singapore understand the moment they enter formal schooling that if they speak and write better in English, they will get better grades in most subjects and they will get the respect of other kids.
I grew up in a working class, Hokkien-speaking household, and it felt to me like people who spoke better English were higher class, and I associated better English with better jobs and higher salaries. Even within the worlds of English and Chinese speakers, there are further gradations of class and power. The higher classes of speakers have more “authentic”, “pure”, “proper”, “good”, closer to native-speaker pronunciations and use literary references. The lower classes speak “badly”, “poorly”, frequently “mispronounce”, and often speak in “mixed” forms.

As the world becomes more global, and as we have more and more dealings internationally, these labels begin to seem like petty high-school social-sorting. They might be important as markers of class and power within our small country, but they have very little significance in the broader world, where we are interacting and working with Vietnamese, Indians, Japanese, Central Americans, Chinese, with whom we will most likely interact in a form of International English, International Chinese, or other languages.

I got to understand this, living and working in New York for 20 years. In New York, everyone speaks with differing accents and facilities with English, and yet, stuff just gets done.

What becomes much more important for successful interactions is that we are culturally confident, culturally competent, and creative.

To be “culturally confident”, means that we value and embrace our own languages, cultures and stories. Without embracing who we are, it’s very difficult to be confident in the world. In the public cultural sphere, one effort at embracing who we are is what the Speak Mandarin Campaign has done this year with their database of Singaporean Mandarin terms, a database that continues to grow as we speak.

It documents terms such as “巴刹“ which comes from the Malay “Pasar” and Arabic “bazaar” to refer to “市场”; “德士“ is a transliteration of taxi, referring to what people in China or Taiwan call “计程车” or “出租车”。

This project is a great example of a public cultural project aimed at building our cultural confidence. Similarly, a long time ago, my husband, Colin Goh, with others, worked on a similar effort, to document Singapore English (Singlish) and put it into a dictionary. It was first crowd-sourced on a web site and then published into a book, which has been reprinted multiple times and continues to be a mainstay in bookstores even after 18 years. The book is called the Coxford Singlish Dictionary. It was quite wonderful that the Coxford Singlish Dictionary was on the table when the Singapore and American diplomatic teams got together to finalize the Free Trade Agreement between Singapore and the US.

We have witnessed the joy with which Singaporeans introduce our unique language to others through texts such as the Coxford Singlish Dictionary. We shouldn’t be ashamed of finding pleasure in what makes us unique.

We can all help to build cultural confidence: asking grandparents to share their stories, and also songs or pop culture they enjoyed, and talking about the changes over the years; watching Singapore films and TV series from different periods together as a family… Enjoying the culture and stories of the place rather than whether we meet some imagined rubric of correctness.

Because YB’s Mandarin is now better, and because she learns 閩南語 or Hokkien in Taiwan, this has opened up new worlds with her Great Grandmother, who can now share her stories. YB now thinks her Great Grandma is a total “badass” for riding around her village with an ax to hunt down the kids who bullied her siblings!

Cultural confidence must also be balanced by cultural competence. This requires an openness to other cultures and languages. In our neighborhood in New York, multiple languages were spoken in the playground and in common spaces in our apartment building. These included Mandarin, Korean, Spanish, French, Bengali. Our family learned basic greetings in these multiple languages, and sometimes a little more. And our daughter got to see what happens in relationships and people’s reactions when we are willing to shift the cultural and linguistic center from ourselves to try and communicate in the audience’s languages. It opens up new worlds, and definitely, new friendships and new cuisines!

Again, humour and stories help a lot. My co-creator and husband, Colin and I focus quite a bit on cultural openness and inclusiveness in Little Dim Sum Warrriors books. In our story, “Your Relatives Are Weird” for example, Xiajiao finds that Baozi’s family has very “weird” names!

And by the end of the story, we realize that Xiajiao’s family have really weird names as well!

Global competence may well start from the simple understanding that we are all weird in our unique ways!

With cultural confidence and cultural competence, we can then start creating in truly meaningful ways.
A good example is “天黑黑“, a song by Stefanie Sun 孫燕姿, Singapore’s biggest Mandopop export, which builds on an old Hokkien song. Or multiple award-winning Singaporean designer, Jackson Tan, whose love for old-fashioned Singaporean playgrounds inspired the creation of Art-Zoo, an inflatable playground that continues to bring joy to children worldwide.

When Colin and I made the film 《美滿人生》Singapore Dreaming 14 years ago, the experiences of growing up in a 3-room HDB flat in Queenstown inspired the setting and the story. We were highly committed to keeping the dialogue as naturalistic as possible, which meant Singlish, Hokkien, Mandarin and Malay all mixed together.

We were told that by not being in standard English or Mandarin, the film’s international appeal would be limited. This turned out to be completely false. The film’s resolute Singaporean-ness didn’t prevent the film from playing in festivals and venues round the world, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, or the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. It didn’t prevent the film from winning what was then Europe’s largest screenwriting award in San Sebastian, or the Best Asian Film Award in Tokyo.

If we are only outward facing and trying to pander to what we think audiences want, we can only be copycats and counterfeits. To be truly original internationally, we need to feel able to draw on all that makes us us, not just the sanitized bits.

Our kids should feel confident in our culture, even if it seems impure. What’s purity mean anyway? And they must also acquire the competence to recognize our common humanity, and value diversity in thought and representation. Finally, we must allow our kids the space and opportunity to connect the old with the new, and express them in a multitude of ways—film, comics, songs, stories.



Growing up in my home, Chinese was a spoken language in the form of Hokkien, mostly, not in the form of Mandarin nor did my parents read anything in Chinese. I was learning it, essentially, as a foreign language. It was no wonder that I got so stressed that I tore up my Chinese book. My parents could not help me at all with Chinese nor did we think of tutors. Chinese as a written form probably, strange as it may sound, exists mostly as a school language for many Chinese families in Singapore. But yet, because of exams, it remains a high stakes language, and because parents want their children to access the economic benefits of the language, remain a priority for families. I know many parents in Singapore who are “in charge” of Chinese homework (usually the mommy) in the household who tell me that it’s always so stressful and they become the “public enemy”. It is truly a difficult task and I applaud you for your persistence and your hard work.

There’s a lot about “the system” that families and teachers feel trapped by and are caught in. The good news is, I also know many Singaporeans who were “ang mo pai” when they were in school, but eventually worked hard to speak and write well in Chinese because it was required of them in their work. Something in the course of their education encouraged them to be flexible, creative, and open to new ways of being, and willing to continue learning. It’s really not the end of the world to start out bad in Chinese. What’s important is to be flexible, creative and to know how to learn.

I do think that far beyond language ability itself, what’s important and will take our kids through any circumstances, any new situations in the future would be:

(1) learning from being last in class
(2) following their interests and getting into the habit of learning
(3) connecting deeply with their own cultures and stories, that they might have the confidence to be globally competent.

If you have any questions or topics that you would like me to cover in the areas of education and parenting, please send me an email at I check all my emails personally and look forward to your questions. However, if you’re a student who’s trying to ask me to do your homework or project for you, I will most likely not have time to respond because I get way too many of those emails and it’s quite impossible to answer them all. ?

I am also hosting The Dim Sum Warriors Doodle Date, a FREE bilingual chat-and-draw-along session which is run via Facebook on select Saturdays at 10.30 am (Singapore time (UTC+8). If you are interested, check out this introduction to Dim Sum Warriors.

Don`t copy text!