by Woo Yen Yen

Why is it important to cross invisible language barriers?
Why is it important to learn a “minority” language or a dialect?

My daughter YB (short for ‘Yakuza Baby’, the nickname we gave her because she was born while Colin and I were watching a Japanese gangster movie) has been practicing a Hokkien song for the variety show in her international school in Taiwan.

She says that in her international school, the teachers would play music in the classroom regularly, and the kids would invariably request songs in English. So far, she has not heard a single Mandarin song played in her school, which made her wonder if it was all right to even request one. Even though nobody has said explicitly that you’re ONLY allowed to play or sing English songs, that’s tacitly accepted as the norm.

This is remarkable considering (1) most of the students are ethnically Chinese; and (2) this is Taiwan, the cynosure of Mandarin pop.  Apparently, she’s going to be the first person to sing a Hokkien song in her school variety show. This was entirely her choice, and I was both surprised and proud, considering she only picked up Hokkien last year, when she was in a local Taiwanese elementary school.

Thinking back to my own schooling and teaching experience in Singapore, I must admit that the kids would have shown hesitancy in choosing a Hokkien or Cantonese song to perform as well. Mandarin and English songs were always safe choices, and Japanese, Korean or French songs would have been ok and even quite cool. But Hokkien or Cantonese songs just felt like they would not attract the school community’s approval or praise.

These invisible lines concerning language exist in our educational environments, even if there are no overt campaigns or movements to prefer one over another.  The result of such invisible lines, however, is that there are now a class of people whom we stop trying to understand.

In YB’s school, the ones who speak Hokkien/Minnan regularly to each other just happen to be the custodians, cleaners, and cafeteria “aunties”. And they’ve told YB she’s the only student who speaks Hokkien to them. But because she is now learning new Hokkien words from the service staff, she returns home every day with stories not just of her classmates and her teachers, but also about “Auntie Sumi” and “Auntie Claudia” from the cafeteria.

It struck me that daring to cross invisible language lines really helps to build kids’ global competence—a skill that is vital in our globalised world. It helps kids build fearlessness in approaching and talking to people different from ourselves. It also trains us to listen carefully to others, thereby opening up new worlds and possibilities for engagement.

Here’s a fun suggestion: Examine your various environments. Identify the languages that fall outside the line of what’s ok or cool in those environments, and who tends to use them. Try picking up words in those languages, perhaps by asking those who speak it to teach you. Encourage your children to do the same. Share what new words you learn with your family. Repeat daily!

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.

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