Keeping the mother tongues alive Singapore's bilingual challenge

03 Nov 2019

The Sunday Times, 3 Nov 2019, Keeping the mother tongues alive Singapore's bilingual challenge
"Logically, the decision is obvious. Emotionally, the choice is painful."
That was how then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew described the "stark choice" of pairing English with Mandarin, and not other dialects, in bilingual policy at the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979.
Forty years later, the same pragmatic logic drives worries about falling standards of Mandarin, even as official efforts have succeeded in replacing dialect use and making English the dominant language.
At an event to celebrate the campaign's 40th anniversary last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that Singapore was losing its bilingual edge as other countries catch up.
"They all know that to work in China, to build relationships with the Chinese and to grab opportunities that come with China's development, they have to master Mandarin," said PM Lee in the language.
He noted that 71 per cent of Chinese households with Primary 1 children speak mostly English at home today. The figure was 42 per cent two decades ago.
But this phenomenon is not limited to Chinese families. Among Malay families, the corresponding figures are 67 per cent (18 per cent), and among Indians, 70 per cent (55 per cent). Never-ending efforts to promote Singapore's three mother tongues - Chinese, Malay and Tamil - share challenges, but some are more unique to the latter two.
The familiar pragmatic anxiety of how Singaporeans might compete with others is the common theme fuelling their attitudes towards each language, observers say.
But while this may benefit Mandarin usage as it sees increasing relevance with China's rise, an emphasis on the economic value of language has backfired on the use of Malay and Tamil, they warn.
Ironically, at the heart of the bilingual challenge today is the language made dominant by the very same practical motivations: English.
There were two main intentions behind the bilingual policy of making English the "first" and working language of the nation.
One was the need to be a relevant player on the English-speaking world stage. Concerns about how Singlish or broken English might affect business, for example, prompted then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to launch the Speak Good English Movement in 2000.
Another reason was to have a neutral, common language for the different ethnic groups. As the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, the nation would fall apart if one vernacular language was picked over others.
While these goals remain valid, official efforts to reach them may have become too successful, to the detriment of mother tongues, experts suggest.
Dr Neo Peng Fu, director of the Confucius Institute at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), sees a parallel with the historical centrality of Chinese dialects.
In 1978, Hokkien was the lingua franca between the different ethnicities, with 77.9 per cent able to understand it - a higher percentage than those who could understand Malay (67.3), English (61.7) and Mandarin (63.9).
"Now it seems history is repeating itself. English has replaced Hokkien, but the issue of a dominant language in society that is different from languages of the communities and family remains," says Dr Neo.
The widespread use of English is not necessarily a bad thing, says Jurong GRC MP Rahayu Mahzam, especially in terms of the bilingual policy.
But the overall environment has made it challenging for mother tongues, which are the languages associated with Singapore's official ethnic categories: Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay or Bahasa Melayu for Malays, and Tamil for Indians.
"There is a similar challenge across the different mother tongues. With English education (and) more exposure to the language, the opportunities to use the mother tongue are limited," says Ms Rahayu, who chairs the Bulan Bahasa, or Malay Language Month, committee.
Similarly, Tamil Language Council member Harini V notes that the school system gives English an advantage. "English is institutionalised through formal education. It is used as the language of instruction up to university. But the mother tongue is limited to one class, and it stops at junior college, if not secondary school," says the bilingual poet.
Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui says that media content plays a big role, especially for children, noting the past popularity of free-to-air TV channels in the mother tongues.
"Channels such as Channel 8, Suria or Vasantham often provided entertainment in the family's living room. Today, kids consume content on YouTube or Netflix... They are not exposed to mother tongue content very much," she notes.
But this does not mean learning English and a mother tongue must be mutually exclusive, says Promote Mandarin Council member Tan Chee Lay. "Research shows that the mind is more like a sponge and, especially at a young age, we can absorb several languages and differentiate between them," says Dr Tan.
Ms Mei-kwei Barker, director of English language services at the British Council Singapore, says that English and the mother tongues play different roles in Singapore's society. She adds that they "should not be learnt in competition, but in cohesion". "English is typically the language of study and commerce, and the common tongue that unites (Singapore's) diverse racial mix. The mother tongue, on the other hand, is the language of informality that binds Singaporeans to their cultural roots," she says.
Similarly, Mr Jason Leow, chairman of the Speak Good English Movement, says that standard English is a way of connecting different races and cultures here.
"As a resource provider for learners of standard English, the movement supports the learning of good English alongside mother tongues in Singapore," he says.
But Dr Nazry Bahrawi, senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, thinks that English's bridging role may have "fossilised to dominance". Singapore now has a "linguistic hierarchy", he argues.
"English is the prestigious language of science and progress, while mother tongues are confined to the spheres of tradition and heritage... Unless we arrest or break this hierarchy, we will probably have to contend with an anglicised society for a long time to come."
English, fuelled by an obsession in Singapore to stay competitive, rose to the top. The same concern now drives worries that Chinese Singaporeans are losing their bilingual edge in China.
These worries are not unfounded, observers say.
As a primary school pupil in the 1950s, veteran historian Kua Bak Lim recalls studying Chinese classics like the 14th-century novel Sanguo Yanyi (Romance Of The Three Kingdoms).
"The teacher would launch into detailed explanations of the text, sentence by sentence. Now you may not get to read it even up to university," says the expert on Chinese Singaporean history.
His story illustrates the falling standards of Chinese over the years. Mr Kua notes that the phasing out of vernacular schools may be a factor that led to the decline.
Dr Zhou Zhaocheng, founder of the Jiangsu Association in Singapore, thinks that if the country's bilingualism does not improve, it will fall back relative to the world.
"The Chinese language level of other countries is rapidly improving, and the English level of Chinese elites is high. If Singapore stays in the same place, it would actually be regressing," he says.
Agreeing, Dr Neo says the key is PM Lee's emphasis on comparative advantage. Dr Neo notes that 15 years ago, Singapore was the only country in the region, apart from Malaysia, that taught Chinese as a school language.
"Today, though still a minority, those in nearby Asean countries are studying Mandarin with great drive and passion, and may learn the language better and put in more work than some of our children."
On the other hand, Singapore's bilingual advantage in Chinese is still there, says Dr Neo.
"Very few countries have what we have on the national level for Mandarin. From (Primary 1) to the O levels, there is regular exposure in school, to build that foundation."
And NTU Emeritus Professor Eddie Kuo notes: "Three or four decades ago, it might (have seemed) awkward to use Mandarin in such places. Now Mandarin is used quite naturally."
But Prof Kuo stresses that conversational Mandarin alone is insufficient. "If we are counting on that to compete globally, regionally, that does not help very much," he says.
His comments reflect the sentiments of those doing business in China.
Mr Siew Toong Chung, who has lived in China and worked in senior business leadership positions there for nine years, says a casual interest in the language is not enough.
"Those with false confidence, who think they can do business in China with an elementary level of Mandarin, will create misunderstandings to the detriment of their business relationships."
Mr David Ong, who has lived in Shanghai for 12 years and worked in the events industry before starting his own firm, wonders if Singaporeans actually have any bilingual edge in the first place.
"When I came here, I realised that our education system did not really prepare us well enough to call ourselves truly bilingual, as our Mandarin standards were simply not at a high enough level to do business."
His Mandarin improved only with constant interaction with native speakers. "Sure, Mandarin will help slightly, but everyone in the West is also learning it. There needs to be a deeper understanding of how China has developed, and how the business environment has changed," says Mr Ong.
He suggests more mingling with native speakers, such as through subsidised trips for Singaporean students to workplaces in China.
Promote Mandarin Council member Lee Kuan Fung adds that losing touch with Chinese has more than an economic downside.
"For Chinese Singaporeans, beyond communication, Mandarin serves as an important link to our own culture and roots," she says.
Prof Kuo and Mr Kua also worry about the level of cultural literacy, although the latter thinks the renewed economic relevance of Mandarin will help in its uptake. "Two or three decades ago, how well versed (you were) in English would determine if you got a job. Now it is different, with China rising."

While language is important for understanding one's heritage, the same economic logic that boosts the use of Chinese has worked against Malay and Tamil, experts say.
Dr Nazry notes that most Malays are familiar with the adage "bahasa jiwa bangsa" (language is the heart of the community). "This, in itself, is a strong enough reason to master Malay. A stronger sense of community leads to a surer sense of self."
But he also notes that many Malays are more practical-minded.
Local Malay-language podcast Okletsgo enjoys a listener rate of 80,000 an episode. Yet the podcast's co-host Dzar Ismail, who is also a language ambassador for the Malay Language Council, says he speaks mostly English with his family, and his four-year-old daughter takes Chinese classes.
"At the end of the day, we want a language that is economically viable, that will equip our children for the job market," says Mr Dzar.
Dr Nazry traces this anxiety to a "strong push" by community elites to excel academically and thus choosing to focus on English.
"In meritocratic Singapore, the dominant narrative about the surest path to success is for one to do well at school. Malays have been depicted by numerous racialised education surveys over the years as the worst-performing community. Little wonder they have the most to prove," he notes, adding that the unfortunate casualty of the community's pursuit of educational excellence is Malay language use.
The same challenge applies to Tamil, notes Mr Arun Mahizhnan, a special research adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies.
"As long as it is seen from a utilitarian point of view, Tamil will not survive in the country, let alone flourish. They have to look at the language as part of their identity to have a compelling reason to speak and read it," says the director of the Centre for Singapore Tamil Culture.
Ms Harini agrees, noting that many in the community see language as a means to an end. "We need to see the language differently, to celebrate and identify with it culturally."
As with Mandarin, there are tensions in the Malay-and Tamil-speaking communities between purists and those advocating a conversational level, especially as a way to attract younger speakers.
Mr Hairianto Diman, a Malay language ambassador for the Malay Language Council, says there are those who disapprove of borrowing terms from English, for example.
"But borrowing between the languages has always existed. While there may be a Malay equivalent for a term, if most people don't understand it, what is the point?"
Mr Hairianto, who is a multimedia journalist with The Straits Times, says that for day-to-day use, expectations should not be so stringent.
Ms Rahayu adds that she does not think everyone needs to be a linguist or speak perfect baku (formal or standard) Malay all the time.
"Of course, for formal or official occasions, we will still use it out of respect. But in terms of everyday use of Malay, an overly formal approach may discourage those starting with the language."
Mr Dzar agrees. His podcast uses conversational Malay in a colloquial setting - a far cry from the baku Malay he had to use in his old job as a broadcast radio deejay.
"If we don't allow more casual use of the language, it will end up like Sanskrit, a very high-order language that isn't used day to day."
Similarly, Mr Mahizhnan says that using complex Tamil phrases will put off young speakers.
"We should generate interest through culture, through other activities like dance or theatre, and slowly draw them in."
But there are added challenges to promoting minority languages, say observers. For example - especially for Tamil - the fact that it is spoken only by a minority is an issue, says Mr Mahizhnan.
In fact, if the Government did not ensure Tamil was used in the public domain like hospitals or MRT stations, the language would be virtually invisible, he notes.
And while Mandarin no longer has a stigma attached to it, as observers noted previously, the same cannot be said of Tamil and Malay.
Mr Irshath Mohamed, a Tamil Murasu journalist, says there are class differences in the use of Tamil. "Members of the community in higher echelons use English instead, probably due to lack of familiarity. That needs to change, so that we have role models in the community who speak Tamil."
Ultimately, experts across all three mother tongues agree on one thing: Language learning needs to start in the home.
"It has to start from day one. Age zero to six are the golden years, and parents need to deliberately create a home environment that nurtures Mandarin," says Dr Tan.
Mr Kua and Ms Lee also suggest that families should start early in using Mandarin at home.
Mr Mahizhnan says the same about Tamil. "If the home does not provide the environment for a child to learn the language, it could be a tough battle for other institutions like schools and cultural organisations to instil love of the language."
Ms Rahayu agrees: "It is about cultivating that love and passion. You need to see how it ties into a person's identity, culture, and to the essence of being Singaporean, and embrace that at home."