Singapore: Mother tongues…


The Economist

Feb 22nd 2020 edition

Singapore has almost wiped out its mother tongues

Elderly speakers of Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien sometimes cannot talk to their own grandchildren

WHEN SANDY, a young Chinese Singaporean, learned that her grandmother was terminally ill, she signed up for a workshop in the Hokkien language run by, a social enterprise founded to help Singaporeans communicate with the city-state’s older Chinese residents—including within their own families. Sandy is fluent in English and Mandarin, the official “mother tongue” of Chinese Singaporeans. Her grandmother spoke little of either. Before she died, Sandy thrilled her by asking in Hokkien, “What was your childhood like?” She was even able to understand some of the answer.

Their language barrier was the product of decades of linguistic engineering. English has been the language of instruction in nearly all schools since 1987, to reinforce Singapore’s global competitive edge. But, depending on ethnicity, pupils study a second language—typically Mandarin, Malay or Tamil.


Forum: Singaporeans must treasure their mother tongues


More Singaporeans speak English today, with many using it as the main language of communication at home. At public events, emcees often use only English, according to retired lecturer Margaret Chan (English, mother tongue and the S’pore identity, Jan 2).

Based on various observations, she claims that English has become a mother tongue.

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once called English a “stepmother tongue”, though he was English-educated and English was his first language. He believed that our ethnic languages still had an important role to play. He said: “I do not expect Singapore to become a purely English-speaking society. The majority of the older generation cannot speak English… Next, the majority of the younger generation speak Mandarin and will continue to use it if we succeed in creating a supportive Mandarin-speaking environment. Further, a small proportion of the young Chinese, perhaps as much as 10 per cent, may not be able to master English.”

We have been very successful in unifying Singaporeans by adopting English as the common working and education language.

But there are long-term downsides if we do not use our mother tongues often enough in other domains of our life.

First, it may dilute our ethnic identity because English is less effective in retaining and promoting our own cultures.

Second, those who are not conversant in English might be further disadvantaged should the use of English become even more overwhelming. A new social divide may develop.

Third, younger Singaporeans’ proficiency in mother tongues would deteriorate over time if there is a lack of support to use them.

Researchers and policymakers should also take into account the continuous influx of foreigners, whose standards of English vary widely.

Periodically we should discuss and reaffirm our standing on the language matter, so that measures can be introduced to prevent any discord over it from developing into a social or political problem.

Singaporeans must treasure their respective mother tongues and make an effort to learn and use them.

Albert Ng Ya Ken


CNA Insider

More young Singaporeans signing up for dialect classes

Demand for lessons has shot up in the last two to three years, from those who want to connect with the elderly or their own roots

SINGAPORE: In the hallways of one of the science blocks, enthusiastic students like Ms Sarah Xing can be heard loudly chanting words like  “Yuht, ngee, sahm” – one, two, three in Cantonese – and bursting into laughter when someone gets the tones wrong. Which is frequently.

The 21-year-old is one of 30 undergraduates from the Department of Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who signed up for a course in Cantonese. As a subject, it’s got nothing in common with their usual staple of cell biology, analytical chemistry and pharmaceutical analysis. It adds zero value to their grades. 

But, these third-year students clearly think it important enough to make time in their hectic schedules for learning the Chinese dialect.

The four-week course was organised by their seniors, to better equip these future pharmacists for when they encounter older, dialect-speaking patients on the job. Said Ms Xing: “With our aging population, a high percentage of the patients will be elderly. And if I can speak their language and understand their situation, I can provide better care to them.”

She also wanted to be able to communicate better with her maternal grandmother. Like a number of elderly Singaporeans, grandma speaks Mandarin, but often lapses into her dialect when she struggles to find the Mandarin words.Advertisement


At the other end of the age spectrum, most of Ms Xing’s friends are like her – able to speak only a smattering of their family’s dialect.

In 2015, some 12 per cent of Singaporeans said they spoke mainly Chinese dialects at home. That’s down from 14.3 per cent in 2010, and 18.2 per cent in 2005, according to the General Household Survey.

But more and more, younger Singaporeans are going back to school to learn their grandparents’ tongues – in large part, to bridge that linguistic gap between the generations.

Catering to them are groups like Viriya Community Services, which started free Learn My Dialect classes in 2007 to build awareness and promote intergenerational bonding.

Response was slow initially 10 years ago.  But in the past two years, their classes in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese have boomed in popularity.


Various clan associations that CNA Insider spoke to also reported an increase in sign-ups for dialect lessons. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK) said interest has been growing over the last three years, especially among those in the medical field, lawyers, undergraduates and property agents.

Mr Jeremiah Soh, a marketing executive with the association, said: “Most of those who sign up for these courses do so because of work.

There is a small percentage that is keen to learn the dialect to know about their culture and roots.

Once held on an ad-hoc basis, these days, four general Hokkien conversational courses – each about three months long, for a fee of S$280 – are conducted each year, with one or two specialised courses involving medical jargon.  

Students ranged in age from 17 to their 40s – a  demographic that grew up in the Speak Mandarin Campaign era post-1979, with little exposure to Hokkien, speaking mainly English or Mandarin at home.

“It is possible that it will be lost,” said Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, lecturer in linguistics and multilingual studies at the Nanyang Technological University, who said that regional dialects were also falling out of use in his native Italy.

But there’s hope yet, if young people in Singapore are leading the charge. “You may have some social revival, like the way people in Scotland are trying to speak Gaelic so as to preserve their language,” he said. Source: CNA/yv

For the whole article and videos:


Forbes Asia

Mar 23, 2015, 01:42pm

Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy For Singapore: A Language Policy For A Globalized World

Yunita Ong
Contributor Forbes Asia

As a Singaporean attending college abroad, I often reflect about how my upbringing has made me a product of who I am. On Monday morning at home, friends, family and fellow citizens woke up to the news that the founding father of modern Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, passed away.

He lost a battle with severe pneumonia that morning but in his lifetime, he won many others. There was the fight for survival so chronicled in our national history textbooks – his leadership of a nation with no natural resources, no hinterland, almost nothing, taking a country many doomed to failure from “Third World to First,” the title of one of his autobiographies. There were the crackdowns on dissidents and opposition politicians, which he believed was the necessary price for social order and economic success.

It is his bilingual policy that I have been reflecting deeply about. As a relatively successful young Singaporean who did well enough in school to earn a spot in an American college – I see myself and my grasp of language molded in his vision.

When Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, Lee knew the resource-poor country needed a unique economic model.

“We knew that if we were just like our neighbors, we would die,” Mr Lee told the New York Times in 2007. As the colonial powers gave up their grip in the region, many turned to reinforcing their identity as independent nations by rejecting Western influence within their countries.

Lee is widely credited for mandating in 1966 that all students learn a “mother tongue” – a language associated with their ethnicity.

“If we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would not make a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback,” he wrote in his memoirs. “We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world.”

Lee’s bilingual policy was uniquely influential because it made Singapore highly adept with the forces of globalization.

In a letter to Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Tony Tan said: “Singaporeans today are able to leverage on our bilingual and bicultural edge to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves around the world.” A English-speaking workforce became Singapore’s best resource, I learned in high school history classes, because we could then woo foreign direct investment from multinationals in the West. With China’s economic ascendency, many of Singapore’s Mandarin-speaking population (ethnic Chinese are three-quarters of the nation) have been able to take advantage of opportunities there. China was Singapore’s top trading partner in 2013, with bilateral trade amounting to $91.4 billion.

In the country’s early years, it was also a tool of social cohesion for a country made up of Chinese, Malay and Indian diaspora populations. English gave them a platform for them to socialize and also compete in school on an equal footing, but their language kept them rooted to their heritage. It helped put to rest ethnic tension that could have impeded economic progress.

Lee has been called Singapore’s “father” in the popular press – it’s a fair assessment for me because I see my life’s journey molded in his views. Since leaving high school, my Mandarin has become rustier – but what those years of language classes gave me was the intuitive sense of what some say is one of the world’s toughest languages to learn. My ability to read Mandarin financial documents and translate news articles (albeit with a handy Mandarin-English dictionary by my side, nowadays) has not just helped me at work – it has also shaped the direction I want to go in my career – as a journalist covering Asia’s rising economies. In school, I was always reminded when my Indian and Malay friends went off for their “mother tongue” classes, that their different culture and background called for understanding and respect. Bilingualism taught me an important lesson about living among different cultures – something that has helped me incredibly with life in the United States’ melting pot of cultures.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about Lee’s bilingual policy is that he personally struggled with Mandarin. Born to English-speaking parents, he recounted in a book, “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey” his difficulty with mastering the language and by extension, owning his heritage. For him, learning Mandarin was an uphill battle to make the very difficult possible – the same struggle he wrestled with during his political career to make a little island at the tip of the Asian continent survive and eventually, thrive. For his perseverance, I am deeply thankful.


Languages of Singapore

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

According to the Constitution of Singapore, the national language of Singapore is Malay, which plays a symbolic role, as Malays are constitutionally recognised as the indigenous peoples of Singapore, and it is the government’s duty to protect their language and heritage. “The national language shall be the Malay language and shall be in the Roman script […]” (Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, PART XIII) Also according to the constitution, the four commonly used languages of Singapore are EnglishChineseMalay and Tamil.

Hokkien (Min Nan) briefly emerged as a lingua franca among the Chinese,[4] but by the late 20th century they had been eclipsed by Mandarin. The Government promotes Mandarin among Singaporean Chinese people, since it views the language as a bridge between Singapore’s diverse non-Mandarin speaking groups, and as a tool for forging a common Chinese cultural identity.[7] China’s economic rise in the 21st century has also encouraged a greater use of Mandarin. Other Chinese varieties such as Hokkien, TeochewHakkaHainanese and Cantonese have been classified by the Government as “dialects“, and language policies and language attitudes based on this classification and discouragement of usage in Non-Mandarin Chinese or “Chinese dialects” in official settings and television media have led to a decrease in the number of speakers of these varieties.[8] In particular, Singapore has its own lect of Mandarin; Singaporean Mandarin, itself with two varieties, Standard and Colloquial or spoken. While Tamil is one of Singapore’s official languages, other Indian languages are also frequently used.[9]

Other Chinese varieties[edit]

Other Chinese varieties also have a presence in Singapore. Amongst them, Hokkien (Min Nan) used to be an unofficial language of business until the 1980s.[36] Hokkien is also used as a lingua franca among Chinese Singaporeans, and also among Malays and Indians to communicate with the Chinese majority.[4] As of 2012, according to demographic figures, the five main Chinese linguistic groups in Singapore are Hokkien-Taiwanese (Southern Min; Min Nan) (41.1%), Other Min Nan variants (Teochew (21.0%) and Hainanese (6.7%)) Cantonese (15.4%) and Hakka (7.9%) , while Fuzhou dialect (Hokchia, Hokchew), Pu-Xian Min (HengHua), and Shanghainese have smaller speaker bases. However, in this present day, the two most commonly Chinese varieties spoken today among the older generation, some of the middle aged and the few of the younger generation are Hokkien-Taiwanese (Southern Min ; Min Nan) being the dominant dialect and Cantonese being second. Teochew, is being replaced by Hokkien-Taiwanese (Southern Min ; Min Nan), while other Chinese varieties are increasingly less commonly heard nowadays.[30][35][37]



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