[lg policy] Singapore: Bilingual Language Policy and its Educational Success

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 28 17:09:10 UTC 2013

Singapore: Bilingual Language Policy and its Educational Success
By Anthony Jackson on February 25, 2013 2:31 AM

International Mother Language Day was last week and we posted about
celebrating the individual mother tongue each of us uses. Today we
look at Singapore's inclusive language policy.

By Ee-Ling Low

Singapore's education system has garnered much international interest
in the light of its consistently high student achievement in
internationally benchmarked tests. Many are asking the obvious
question: Why or what accounts for Singapore's educational success?

While a myriad of factors lie at the heart of Singapore's educational
success, this article will focus on the contribution of careful
language planning and policy implementation that has helped the nation
to consistently perform well on international student achievement

Singapore is a multi-racial country with diverse ethnic groups and
cultures. The major racial groups in Singapore are the Chinese,
Malays, Indians, and others (mainly Eurasians). During British
colonial rule, the local schools' medium of instruction was based on
their mother tongue: that is, the language of their respective ethnic

In 1965, when Singapore obtained full independence, there was a need
for a lingua franca to facilitate communication among the different
races and different dialect-speaking groups. Then, English was not
just a world language, but more importantly, the language of the
Commonwealth, and of science and technology. Since no ethnic group can
claim English to be their own language, English was considered a
convenient means by which Singaporeans could express their common
national identity. The government named English, along with Mandarin,
Malay, and Tamil—the languages of the major ethnic groups—to be the
four official languages of Singapore.

The bilingual education policy was one of the first policies of the
newly formed independent government. The policy was implemented as a
way of unifying the different ethnic groups while providing an anchor
for pupils to their ethnic and cultural heritage. With the
implementation of the policy, English-medium schools were expected to
offer a choice of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil as the second language.
English was offered as a second language in non-English medium
schools. Schools were also expected to use the pupils' mother tongues
as the medium of instruction for Civics and History lessons. Due to
the rising popularity of the use of English as the language of
international trade, non-English medium schools faced dwindling
enrollments. By 1987, all schools were converted to English-medium
schools. In terms of university education, English has been used as
the medium of instruction since 1979.

Since the implementation of the policy, the population of
English-knowing bilingual speakers has been increasing. According to
the information reported on the Singapore Census of Population 2010
website, the proportion of bilingual speakers among residents
increased by 13.5% between the last census data release in 2000 and

Literacy Among Resident Population Aged 15 Years and Over

[see attached ee ling table small.jpg]
Table from the Singapore Census of Population 2010 website

The bilingual education policy also gave policy makers, educational
leaders, and teachers the immediate linguistic ability and access to
learn from other education systems, particularly those in
English-speaking nations. From teaching materials, to curricula
development, to teacher education, to school administration and
leadership, Singapore began its important task of nation building
through its education system. Educators had international access to a
wealth of resources worldwide through different phases of educational
development, from the survival-driven phase in the 1960s and 1970s
through to the efficiency-driven phase in the late 1970s to 1980s to
the ability-driven phase from the late 1990s to the present where
multiple pathways are developed in an attempt to maximize students'
achievement potential and to place maximizing every student's life
potential at the heart of all our educational endeavors.

Beyond education, English language competency remains Singapore's most
important asset for international trade. With the economic rise of
China and India, being bilingual proves to be of utmost importance.
With our Malay-speaking regional neighbors that offer abundant
partnership prospects, Malay-speaking Singaporeans will be at the
advantage to explore opportunities beyond Singapore.

The adoption of four co-official languages in Singapore means that
while Singaporeans are competent in the use of English as an
international language, our cultural ties and heritage are not lost by
mastering a second language closely linked to the ethnic make-up of
one of the major racial groups in Singapore. This policy therefore has
the ingenuity of uniting us in a language that none of the racial
groups can claim to be ethnically biased while allowing us to
celebrate the diversity of the tongues that come along with our
multi-ethnic, multi-cultural make-up. In today's digital age, where
information transfer occurs at breakneck speed, high levels of
language competency to process, transfer, and communicate information
effectively on the global platform will only grow in importance.

Ee-Ling Low is Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Programme &
Student Development, Office of Teacher Education, National Institute
of Education, Singapore.


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