Singapore's pseudo mother tongues - 2002. (fwd)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 22 15:31:43 UTC 2005

I am forwarding this message to the list at the request of Christina

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 20 Mar 2005 14:02:31 -0500
From: Christina Paulston <paulston at>
To: lgpolicy-list at
Subject: Re: Singapore's pseudo mother tongues - 2002.

I thought the languagepolicy- list was for sharing news, interesting
new publications, policies, etc. I am tired of Stegemann's opinionated
proclamation of THE truth.  Christina Bratt Paulston
On Mar 19, 2005, at 11:29 AM, R. A. Stegemann wrote:

> Dear list members,
> I am responding to Anthea's recent message with regard to my website
> about my brief, but factually supported comparison of Hong Kong and
> Singapore. Before I begin, I must, once again, apologize that I am
> still unable to upload my Quicktime movie. As I have finally secured
> additional online disk space for my website I will try again on
> Tuesday, when I make my next visit to the Central Library, for there
> they have broadband, and I now know how to connect.
> 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_. Although I like the
> title of her book, I would not recommend its use as a defense against
> data published in 2002; even a national bureaucracy can undergo
> significant change within eight years. In a similar light, I am at a
> loss about how to respond to claims of speculation on anyone's part
> with regard to the interpretation of data. One is nearly always forced
> to read between the numerical lines. What I appear to have, that
> others apparently do not, is a compelling socio-economic model to
> guide me through my interpretation.
> Secondly, I am having particular trouble with Anthea's claim that the
> structure of Singapore' education system is somehow a separate issue
> from that of mother tongues. I find these two items inextricably
> woven, not only in Singapore, but most of East Asia. What is at stake
> here is how language is employed by governments as a form of social
> engineering and what ramifications this has on the efficient
> allocation of human resources, the ability of a society to communicate
> with itself and others, the preservation of local communities, and the
> personal damage suffered by large swaths of people.
> Thirdly, I would very much like Anthea to provide hard evidence with
> regard to her own claims about Singaporeans' English language
> competence.  Personally, I could not find primary measures of
> competence in Singapore and after many hours scouring the internet
> finally concluded that this is one of Singapore's best kept secrets.
> In contrast, I did find some hard facts for Hong Kong and have
> included these in the HKLNA-Project's forthcoming, first, Quicktime
> movie.
> Fourthly, with regard to Anthea's inability to imagine a society
> without a single unifying national language, perhaps a brief look at
> the following URL will help her get started
> <>. If this does not work, then maybe a
> closer look at
> <
> neighbors.html> under the heading "Switzerland - Ethnic homogenization
> en style occidental". Well, neither is exactly Winnie, the Pooh, but
> the first one does come somewhat close to Disneyland.
> Sincerely,
> R. A. Stegemann (Hamo)
> EARTH's Manager and HKLNA-Project Director
> EARTH - East Asian Research and Translation in Hong Kong
> Tel/Fax: 852 2630 0349
> p.s. By the way, Anthea, you never did answer my question with regard
> to Starbuck's. Has it made it to England?
> On 18 Mar 2005, at 08:43, Anthea Fraser Gupta wrote:
>> 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.
>> Anthea
>> <winmail.dat>

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list