In the middle of the room sat the machine—a monolith to the uninitiated, a sleek, oblong contraption with a complicated register and a series of sliders attached to one side.
It was meant to impress, but Geok Hong was unmoved. Over the last five months a copy of this machine had occupied one entire end of her rented shophouse room, where she had operated it for six hours a day. She knew what every dial did and what every string of keystrokes activated. Instead, her eyes wandered about the room, first to the wooden shutter blinds, then to the pendant lights, and finally to the grimy walls plastered with garish government posters in every language: Prussian, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, Japanese and English. She fidgeted with a handheld fan as the machine’s technician, a thin girl in a worn uniform, explained the procedure to her.
“—we will work until six, taking breaks only when your child needs one.”
Her child. Werner sat in the highchair, goggling at the skinny young man strapping him in, a yoyo of drool bouncing from his lip.
The two technicians moved to their posts. It appeared the girl, Man Moy, would operate the machine first, while Razak would observe Werner’s reaction.
As they began, Geok Hong feigned ignorance to the process, finally glancing at the pamphlet they had given her when she had entered the facility.
Fifteen years ago, when the government had introduced the process of birth language identification for newborns, they had touted it as a modern, rational, scientific process, destined to change Temasek. Their reasoning for doing this stemmed from research done in the 1920s, where, amidst the boom of Prussian science, several of their psycholinguists had discovered that children were born fluent in one language—except it was almost never the one from their homeland. They further discovered that by educating children in their birth language, they learnt skills faster and retained more.
The two technicians’ job was to ascertain—at the age of six months, before it was possible for children to have picked up the languages in their environment—whether the child’s birth language was one of the twenty-six taught in the top state academies.
It was vital for Temasek to invest in its most abundant resource—its labor force—as fresh conflicts between Prussian Indochina, Nusantara and Langkasuka left the viability of international trade, once Temasek’s primary industry, in jeopardy.
Geok Hong watched as Man Moy pecked away at the register, activating various phrases from the audio phrasebook. In front of the child, Razak sat, checking to see whether Werner reacted to any of them.
His only response was to gurgle.
That wasn’t the reaction they were looking for, Geok Hong knew. They were waiting for the moment a phrase triggered a verbal response from Werner.
If he responded fluently and appropriately to any of the twenty-six languages, his future would be secured. He would be enrolled into a specialized school devoted only to teaching students of his birth language, and the stable and comfortable life of a bureaucrat would be all but assured for him.
But Geok Hong hadn’t practiced with Werner non-stop since his birth just for an iron rice bowl, as attractive as it was. No, she had trained him for the past five months to respond only to and only in Prussian, the international language of trade and science. If the technicians tagged his birth language as such, he would be sent to the National Institution, the elite boarding school that trained the nation’s future ministers, generals and star academics.
She remembered the moment her postpartum confinement had ended, how Werner’s father had paid four coolies to lug the monstrous language machine—in parts—up to her rented shophouse room. Without consulting her they had rearranged the whole room, and when they were finally done, she could barely walk a step without bumping into the bed, the dresser, or the table.
When she had seen the rearrangement she had wanted to scold him. How on earth could she live with the room like that?
But she couldn’t say that, of course. He had paid for her furniture, he had paid for her care and food during confinement, and he paid her rent. He could put whatever he wanted in the room.
And besides all of that, he had agreed to stay for dinner.
So Geok Hong had kept her mouth shut.
That night, as she relished the rare treat of nasi schnitzel, he had lectured her about the need to train Werner daily.
“You can’t just hope Werner picks up Prussian through the kopitiam radio. You need to teach him to respond to the machine.” At that point he patted the cabinet-sized device, making a satisfying clang. He beamed. Geok Hong had no clue how he managed to procure one, and while he had boasted about it all throughout dinner, he had kept mum about the machine’s origins. “Werner is not going to live as a second-class citizen,” he said.
He had also been very proud that he helped pick his son’s Prussian name.
Geok Hong had been afraid. “They’ll put him in the National Institution with children whose birth language is actually Prussian. He won’t be able to keep up. Besides, how can I fool a language technician?”
At that, his face darkened, the way it did when she asked him to stay the night.
He said, “If they discover your situation, they’ll take him away anyway. You can barely support yourself as it is. The question is, do you want him adopted by another coolie family like yours, or by Temasek’s top school?” Then his face softened, as he added, “Do as I say and it’ll be all right. Trust me. All the other officials do it too.”
With their legitimate children, Geok Hong almost shot back. But she pressed her lips together. He had been in a good mood until then. Perhaps he’d stay the night if she acquiesced.
She jolted alert as Werner started grizzling.
“Ma’am, please wait—”
But it was too late. Geok Hong scooped the baby into her arms. “He’s hungry.”
Razak and Man Moy shared a look. “We’ll take a break.”
When they resumed, they swopped places, now Man Moy watched the child, while Razak operated the machine.
Geok Hong recognised the rolling tongue of Japanese playing from the speakers. When it came to selecting the twenty-six languages the national schools would teach, the government had eschewed the Malay and Mandarin dialects spoken on the streets. Instead, they had chosen to teach in the foreign languages of the world’s great powers—nations whose languages had a large trove of existing scientific, political, philosophical and military literature, in the hopes that the children who spoke those languages as their birth language would better absorb the innovations and ideas from them, and use this knowledge to bring glory to Temasek.
Geok Hong listened as Razak played more phrases. Over the last five months, though she never learnt the words, she could recognise the cadence of each language. Portuguese was a rower paddling a canoe. Tamil was an acrobat jumping skip rope.
She noticed they were avoiding Prussian.
The boy’s father had warned her some technicians would save it for last. “They know people want it,” he said, pressing a sheaf of marks into her hand. “Use this if necessary.”
The money was now in two separate angbaos, tucked away in her purse. If she offered, would they take it? Were all officials like Werner’s father?
Geok Hong imagined her son’s life at the National Institution, walled off from the rest of Temasek so its students could focus on their sole job: studying. She missed him already. How would he fare? Would he find success and happiness?
Or would he wear the same expression she did now?
She eyed Man Moy, who smiled as she watched Werner. She hadn’t been much different a few years ago, before she met Werner’s father—uniform thin and yellowed, wearing ratty shoes that had been passed from sibling to sibling, working as some office apparatchik.
How could a girl like that look so much happier than her?
The first track in Prussian played, and Werner gave a gurgle. Man Moy cooed back, and made a mark on her document.