mother tongue and native language

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at
Fri Mar 18 00:43:55 UTC 2005

As usually I am in extreme disagreement with R A Stegemann.  Stegemann's paper draws on the figures from Singapore's past censuses. I have written extensively on this topic and have made a full critique of census data in my 1994 book, *The Step-tongue*. They require considerable interpretation. The figures for school enrollment also need to be further developed, and, especially, a distinction must be made between Singaporean and non-Singaporean children.  The interpretation at the moment is too speculative.  I do agree that Singapore's education system is highly competitive and exam-oriented, but this is a different issue from the language one.
The term 'native language' is normally used to refer to a language learnt before any other. The term 'mother tongue' is sometimes used in that sense, but is often given a sociopolitical definition which is (in some way) important for a particular place. It is often used to mean 'the language of the ancestors'. Singapore has provided a sociopolitical definition of mother tongue which is specific to Singapore. 
It has to be understood that people do not necessarily speak the languages of their ancestors as a native language (as a casual glance at Queen Elizabeth II, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Lee Kuan Yew, all native speakers of English, will show). Singapore has undergone considerable language shift over the years, and especially since independence. The ancestral varieties of Chinese (and all Indian languages and also languages such as Javanese and Boyanese) have all lost native speakers, while Mandarin Chinese and English have gained them.  In people under 30 Mandarin and English are the two most common native languages, and over half of all children come to nursery school already able to speak both school languages. One effect of the way in which the census questions were asked is that the number of speakers of ALL languages is fewer than it should be. For example, it is common in Malay households for both Malay and English to be used, very much in that order. If all the Malay families in Singapore said they spoke (say) Malay 70% of the time and English 30% of the time, they would appear to be monolingual Malay speakers on the census figures. I explain this in full (for the 80 and 90 censuses) in my book.
Stegemann says "the reason that most Singaporeans speak such poor English is very similar to that found in Hong Kong. I would not recommend that every Singaporean be compelled to study English".  I strongly dispute both the premise that "most Singaporeans speak ... poor English" and the recommendation. By any reasonable measure (such as performance in UK examinations, or in international tests) the standard of English in Singapore is very high indeed. I cannot imagine what measures Stegemann could use to reach any other conclusion. A unified education system with one language studied by everyone is a vital part of national unity. I find it hard to imagine a state education system in which there was not a common language, and the choice of English for this common language is eminently sensible and well-accepted by the population.
I do not see how comments favourable to English in Singapore are taken as negative.  The Washington source quoted should not have confused Singlish and Singapore English -- these are not the same, any more than Ozark is the same as 'American English' or Geordie the same as 'British English'.  And quite what Stegemann means by "In short, there are likely few members of the US English Foundation that would tolerate having to listen to a speech from any but Singapore's best educated English speakers with substantial overseas experience" I do not know. English is diverse. I don't know what Stegemann's English is like but it won't be like mine, and mine isn't like Hal Schiffman's. English varies and we need tolerance and acceptance not normative prejudices.

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