[lg policy] Singapore: Push to promote mother tongue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 28 15:55:07 UTC 2012

Push to promote mother tongue

Singapore has seen a big influx of foreigners who have brought in
their own languages and dialects that are incomprehensible to the
locals while the government is also determined to transform the island
republic into a global metropolis. MORE families here are using
English on a regular basis when talking to their young children,
raising fresh concerns about Singapore’s bilingual future. This has
raised a new initiative that could total S$100mil (RM243mil) from
87-year-old former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to defend the
multi-national language strategy.

Lee, now a Member of Parliament, announced that he himself would
donate S$12mil (RM29mil) while three of his children would donate
S$200,000 (RM486,000) each. The Education Ministry will match it
dollar-for-dollar up to S$50mil (RM121mil). The fact that Singa­pore’s
language future still retains Lee’s major interest in his sunset
years, has raised some young eyebrows, especially the fund’s ambitious
However, senior citizens who understand Lee’s visionary preoccupation
on the issue are not surprised.

“While the Cabinet is wrestling with day-to-day matters, it is good
for someone to be concerned with long-term needs,” a former teacher
said. There were now added reasons for promoting the mother tongue,
she said. Firstly, Singapore has seen a big influx of foreigners, who
have brought in their own cacophony of languages and dialects, that
are incomprehensible to Singaporeans. Secondly, the government is
determined to transform Singapore into a global metropolis.

Lee has said he hopes he can see it before he leaves this world. This
makes consolidating the learning of the mother tongue more compelling.
Latest statistics show that the majority or 56% of homes with
primary-school children speak English at home, an increase over the
years. Six out of 10 ethnic Chinese and Indian families and 35% of
Malays use English at home. The 2010 Census showed that 32% of adults
in the republic spoke English. This means families with younger
children using English make up nearly twice the proportion of the
general population.

The swing towards English has been dramatic for all, except the Malays
– from one in 10 families in 1980 to six in 10 last year. Singapore’s
language change mirrors elsewhere; so are the repercussions. Half the
6,500 languages in the world may die out by the end of this century,
The Independent newspaper recently reported quoting from Unesco. The
danger comes from their exposure to more dominant languages
(particularly English), economic and technological advances and

More youths are switching to learning and using English on a regular
basis for economic reasons.

Others leave their isolated villages and travel to cities that speak
another language.

No one is saying that Singapore’s mother tongue languages, originating
from three of the biggest and oldest civilisations, are facing the
danger of extinction.

But serious decline in usage will likely continue.

On Jan 11, in a report headlined Chinese language crisis, China Youth
Daily said 83% respondents told a survey that language usage of the
people had declined.

In fact 45% said it “has dropped a lot”.

Other points: 67% say dynamic online language makes Chinese language
fragmented; 67.7% think that people do not attach importance to
Chinese language.

The survey also found that there had been a “foreign language fever
and ignoring of the native language” in China.

Details of Lee’s Promote Mother Tongue project will be announced by
the Education Ministry later this year. According to him, it will as a
start fund activities for pre-schoolers and later nursery pupils.

Lee believes that if the children begin early enough, they would be
bilingual by Primary Six – with a strong foundation in the mother
tongue for life.

“After primary six, at age 12, they can concentrate on their master
language which is English in Singapore,” he said.

He has spent much of his life on an uphill task of persuading more
Singaporeans to use their mother tongue with their children,
especially among the Chinese.

He once said that mastering both English and Mandarin was not an easy
task for most children, including his own seven grandchildren.

Among the lot, only one preferred to use Mandarin, while the rest
often answered in English when he asked them questions in Mandarin,
Lee said in 2009.

The new generation appears, under study pressures, to be continuing to
downgrade the language, studying it only to pass exams and then
quickly discarding it.

This could, Lee fears, adversely impact the nation’s future. It could
lead to Singapore losing its Asian identity if the various races –
especially the ethnic Chinese – lose their mother tongue and culture.

The greatest catalyst was once China’s continuing boom with its rising
job and business opportunities for foreign professionals who could
speak the language.

The bilingual policy is also giving Singaporean businessmen a
value-added advantage there, it was hoped.

But instead of a rush to master it, interest had been waning.

“You don’t need to be good in Chinese to succeed in Singapore,” a
bilingual professional recently said. “Do you think not speaking
Chinese will seriously hamper your career? In most cases, I don’t
think so.”

In a local survey some years ago, about 25% of ethnic Chinese, aged 17
to 29, told a poll that they did not think it was necessary for
Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin at all.

Actually, Singapore’s bilingual language policy has served the country
well to firstly, maintain race harmony and secondly, promote a channel
of communication, with each race keeping its own identity.

A botched effort could result in Singapore losing its “Asianness” and
vastly influenced by everything Western, Lee believes.

But one writer puts it in this way: “Whether or not the Chinese
language is promoted, Singaporeans will still be losing their
individual cultures.

“Globalisation and the Internet are a certainty, and we are all being
assimilated. Resistance is futile.”


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