Singapore's pseudo mother tongues

R. A. Stegemann moogoonghwa at
Tue Mar 22 20:41:04 UTC 2005

Dear list members,

Before beginning I would like to thank Paul Lewis for his explanation
with regard to the Ethnologue data. Certainly it relieves me to think
that the time and energy spent incorporating Ethnologue data into the
HKLNA-Project was not in vain. In a way, however, this part of the
discussion has been quite beside the point. In my examination of
Singapore's system of education and language policy I refer to no fewer
than 25 graphs. Only two of these contain Ethnologue data to which I
refer seven times. The remaining 23 graphs contain information obtained
from various Singapore governmental ministries. To these I refer a
total of 37 times.  In effect, of my 44 data referrals more than 80%
draw solely on governmental data from Singapore.

In my last email I wrote, "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."
So, what did Anthea provide? More census data, suggestions that I visit
Singapore, a critique of Ethnologue data, and her professional title in
a parenthetical note.

Perhaps I should make clear what I meant with regard to primary data.
By way of example, I would like to turn your attention to EARTH's newly
uploaded, interactive, Quicktime movie. The kind of data that I was
looking for in my note to Anthea is illustrated there under the heading

Language Education Policy - Understanding the Nature of Fixed Response
     Beneath the Wheel
         Five Years Beyond

There you will find IELTS scores for nearly 50% of all Hong Kong final
year undergraduate students at Hong Kong's Big 8 universities. With
this data as a benchmark I extrapolate backwards in order to understand
English language competence at the post-secondary level.

As Anthea admits census data are mere claims on the part of
respondents. They are hardly a good measure of competence.
Unfortunately, the best that Anthea could provide was an update of her
own census data.  As Anthea also appears to agree, measures of literacy
tell us very little about one's level of competence in a language. Can
I read a Chinese newspaper? Yes. With what level of comprehension is an
entirely different matter. Moreover, reading, writing, speaking, and
listening are entirely different skills. (See the IELTS results
indicated above).

Although Singapore and Switzerland differ geographically, I fail to
understand how everyone learning one pseudo mother tongue and English
with various levels of competence is any better than everyone learning
two pseudo mother tongues with various levels of competence. There are
several sets of probabilities at work, here; I will briefly examine two
of them: the probability of whom you will meet, and the probability of
your ability to comprehend what is communicated after meeting. Ceteris
paribus, two people with 70% understanding of the same language can
only understand 49% of what is communicated.  In contrast, if one of
the two speakers has 100% comprehension (by way of argument only) both
speakers can understand 70% of what is communicated. Thus, depending on
the composition of a population, it can be preferred that everyone
learn others' primary, pseudo mother tongues, rather than for everyone
to learn the same secondary pseudo mother tongue. This is especially
true in cosmopolitan environments, where there is nearly always a good
mix at any given location.

Anthea brings up a very good point, when she asks what language policy
would work better. Unfortunately, I am not interested in spending much
time with anyone on new proposals until the veils of propaganda,
deception, and prejudice surrounding the old have first been removed.
For the moment, I find the Swiss example sufficiently exemplary.

Citing the number of radio and television stations that provide English
programming with no information about the number of listeners is like
talking about firm number without employment data. In well-developed
economies the number of large firms is always far fewer than the number
of small and medium-size firms. But why are large firms large? Because
they employ many times more people than smaller firms.

Finally, I would like to thank Anthea for the invitation to visit
Singapore, but I have received several already from native residents.
Were I to go, it would not likely be as a tourist, as I have found much
cheaper forms of entertainment that are physically more rewarding.


R. A. Stegemann, A.B., M.A., M.A.
EARTH's Manager and HKLNA-Project Director
EARTH - East Asian Research and Translation in Hong Kong
Tel/Fax: 852 2630 0349

On 21 Mar 2005, at 19:56, Anthea Fraser Gupta wrote:
> 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
> Chinese):
> 	Dialect	Mandarin	English	Others
> 1980	64.4	      25.9	       9.3	       0.3
> 1990	5.6	      67.9	       26.3	       0.2
> 2000	2.2	      53.8	       43.2	       0.8
> 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:
> sg/content.phtml?17&111&&
> 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.
> Anthea
> Leow Bee Geok (ed).2001.  Census of Population 2000. Statistical
> Release
> 2@ Education, Language and Religion. Singapore: Singapore Department of
> Statistics.
> *     *     *     *     *
> Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
> School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
> <>
> NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at
> *     *     *     *     *

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