facts, Stegemann and Gupta

M. Paul Lewis Paul_Lewis at sil.org
Mon Mar 21 20:30:21 UTC 2005

Many thanks to Anthea for pointing out the inaccuracies in the Ethnologue
reporting regarding the national / official languages of Singapore. The
Ethnologue is a continuing research effort and we appreciate all
contributions aimed at making it more accurate and complete.

The error (at least regarding Bengali) has been corrected in the 15th
edition which is now available in print (from Academic_Books at sil.org) and
will soon be available on line.

All users of the Ethnologue website (www.ethnologue.com) should be aware
that the site is an online version of the last released print version of
the Ethnologue. As such, the data is increasingly dated over time as the
website is NOT generally updated until the next printed volume is released
(about every four years).

We welcome all corrections and comments and will evaluate all
communications that we receive with our sources and others we deem to be
knowledgeable.  We attempt to acknowledge all such communications but may
not necessarily notify a correspondent when we have changed our database to
reflect their input.  Even when we have done so, the website will not
reflect a change or correction until the next printed volume is published.

We recognize that this is frustrating to those who have submitted new and
corrected data but it is an artifact of the limited number of personnel we
have available to maintain both the database and the website.  Our hope is
to improve the timeliness of the online data, but for the time being we are
where we are.

With best wishes,

M. Paul Lewis
Editor, Ethnologue
Editor_Ethnologue at sil.org
(972) 708-7432
(972) 708-7589 (Fax)

             "Anthea Fraser
             <A.F.Gupta at leeds.                                          To
             ac.uk>                    <lgpolicy-list at ccat.sas.upenn.edu>
             Sent by:                                                   cc
             st at ccat.sas.upenn                                     Subject
             .edu                      facts, Stegemann and Gupta

             03/21/2005 05:56

             Please respond to
             lgpolicy-list at cca

Stegemann seems to think he has facts and I have assertions. Census
evidence ALWAYS needs interpretation and an assessment of the direction
of error. We ALWAYS need to know the source of statistics.

I lack imagination  ("Anthea's inability to imagine a society
without a single unifying national language"). J'accuse Stegemann of
lacking an understanding that in language planning there are no easy
answers. There are difficult decisions to be made in the light of
political, ethnic, linguistic, and pragmatic complexities. I would
understand what he thinks better if, instead of rubbishing Malaysia,
Hong Kong and Singapore, he told us instead what he thinks does and
would work better.

S seems to be holding up Switzerland as a shining example. Switzerland
has also had to make difficult decisions and the choice made is not
without its problems either. In Switzerland (as in India and Nigeria)
there is a regional element to language, which makes regional
differentiation possible in a way that it would not be in a city-state.
And it has to be remembered that the education system of Switzerland is
intended to ensure that any two Swiss people meeting will be able to
communicate in at least one of the official languages (and in English
too). That seems to me like a unifying policy.

One of Singapore's main concerns is the prevention of too much
inter-ethnic tension. I happen to think that there is still too much
ethnic separation in Singapore and would (as I said) like to see more
cross-ethnic language learning, but the balancing act is a difficult
one, and there have not been race riots since the 1960s, which suggests
government's decisions have not been foolish.

S says:
>Firstly, with the exception of the Ethnologue data that relies on a
> variety of sources of varying dates, all of my census data is
> far more
> recent than Anthea's 1994 book _The Step-tongue

The critique in my 1994 book is just as valid applied to the 2000 census
because the language question was the same (as it probably has to be --
otherwise there could not be comparison across the years). Only language
use within the household is classified (we do not know what language 50
year olds speak to their children unless the children live in the same
household); families are classified as a collection of 'dyads';
responses are for main language used only.  I don't want to revisit the
critique, but I must defend myself against the out of dateness. In 1990
27% of those born in 1961-1970 claimed to speak mainly English to their
spouse (Gupta 1994:31). They were the youngest married age-group in
1990, and would therefore include a relatively low proportion of the
highly educated. The most highly educated groups would be even more
likely to be chatting to their boy/girlcfriends at the time/ In the 2000
census, the figures supplied are much less detailed, and give only the
(next to useless) figure of main household language, but even so, in the
same age group, 26% claimed English as the main household language.  So
even on the kind of figures S seems to like, in a quarter of families
English was claimed as the main language in a majority of dyads.

In the 2000 census, 65% of the 'resident' population claimed to be
literate in English (defined as the ability to read a newspaper).
Singapore is carrying the legacy of the past: in the UK there has been
near-universal education in the medium of English for over 100 years,
but in Singapore this has been the case only for the last 30 years. In
those aged 15-24 97% claimed literacy in English, a figure very similar
to UK or US figures, and probably near the possible maximum.

The Ministry of Education asks parents for the most used and second most
used language at home for incoming students. On 'most used' language
Mandarin is the lead language, and English a close the runner up. In
some years (though not 2000) the second most common language is also
released revealing the prevalent pattern of domestic use of two
languages, with one of them being English, in all ethnic groups. Here
are the results for the censal years ('Dialect' means other variety of

             Dialect           Mandarin          English           Others
1980         64.4              25.9               9.3               0.3
1990         5.6               67.9               26.3
2000         2.2               53.8               43.2

Language spoken most frequently by Chinese Primary One pupils at home
(Education Ministry, ST Weekly, October 21 2000)

A browse around the Ministry of Education website will find you the
figures from other years, and ministerial comments on them.

All of these statistics are subject to the usual warnings about self
report and question asked. However, they are better, and more explained
data than what Stegemann is offering us. The figure on Ethnologue cannot
be taken seriously, as we do not know their origin (though I can work
out most of them -- mostly old and misunderstood census data or
respectable but ancient social surveys).

I will give an example of something I hope even S will realise is an
error in Ethnologue. Ethnologue gives this information: for Singapore as
"National or official languages: Bengali, Mandarin Chinese, Malay,
Tamil, English." NO WAY is (or ever has been, or ought to be, or in even
the most patriotic Bengali's wildest dreams might be) Bengali a national
or official language of Singapore. I have attempted to correct this (and
other) gross errors in Ethnologue many times over the last decade.

Another figure S might like to find from the Ministry of Education's
site relates to the percentage passing Primary School Leaving exams (97%
in 2004) and GCE O-Level exams at the end of secondary school. I think
he will find that the proportions compare well with figures for similar
educational stages in (for example) the UK.

I would urge anyone out there who has not been to Singapore, and seen
for themselves that practically everyone speaks English, to do a bit of
webwork. Do a search for .sg websites and read a variety of texts.
Listen to some radio stations, especially those with call-ins. You could
start at:


Of course S may have a different idea of 'good English' from me. I do
not regard English as monolithic, but welcome dialectal variation. I
also know that there is nowhere in the world where everyone develops
high level skills in the same Standard variety. Even with a normative
stance, though, I would argue that figures such as censal literacy rate,
and standardised tests in English indicate that the proportion of the
Singapore population under the age of 40 (since English medium education
became near universal) who can perform Standard English is similar to to
proportion who can perform Standard English in countries such as the UK
and US.

Must get on with my life.



Leow Bee Geok (ed).2001.  Census of Population 2000. Statistical Release
2@ Education, Language and Religion. Singapore: Singapore Department of

*     *     *     *     *
Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
*     *     *     *     *


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