Mother-tongue policy undermines education and our future

By Jonno.

Mother-tongue issues mask the real socio-political objective of divide-and-rule in Singapore. Despite the so-called racial harmony objectives, the adherence to mother-tongue policy is just an obstacle to the real issue of providing education! Proper education equates to higher economic performance. The higher institutions of learning are invariably located in developed countries with high GDP incomes. Singapore and Hong Kong are exceptions to the rule as their high GDP incomes are masked by high external investments as well as outputs from govt linked companies (as in Singapore’s case).

The real purpose of education is to provide the mechanisms for a thinking mind, broad communication and language skills and an expansive outlook (broadmindedness)! So far, education in Singapore is all about overcoming the hurdles in mother-tongue, primary streaming, PSLE, Independent or gifted, GCE ‘O’ & ‘N’ levels, HSC ‘A’ levels & so on. Only in Singapore, education is more about achieving objectives rather than learning. This is a worrying trend.

The Mother-tongue policy has. clouded the education process by appealing to the chauvinistic, the emotional and the discriminatory. Why? To the majority, what’s the purpose of learning Mandarin? The early majority are overseas Chinese migrants whose main language were diverse dialects ie. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, etc. Mandarin or Chinese was not widely spoken then! Only those with chauvinistic ties to the motherland ie. China harped on learning Mandarin. The more pragmatic ones simply learned English and got better paid as a result during those times. During that era, English took centre stage over mother-tongue languages especially Chinese.

The shift towards a mother-tongue policy occurred as the English-speakers began to agitate for more democracy and reforms. How better to alienate them in one brush stroke than to make mother-tongue mandatory? In silent and inconsequential exile, assertive minorities like Eurasians, Anglicized Indians and Chinese began a slow migration out of Singapore. Of course, the majority stood with the govt on this issue as they had everything to gain, and it showered the ruling party with electoral favours with 60-70% of the votes in the heartlands.

To say that learning Chinese would help local businessman do well in business in China is bull-shit! US & European businessmen have been doing business in China without any knowledge of Chinese and they are doing very well! Language skills are important but they should not be restricted to mother-tongue – it’s backward and restrictive! It also creates narrow-mindedness!

Having watched the mother-tongue policy for over 2 decades, I’m beginning to see worrying issues: Singlish as opposed to proper English; ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ attitude i.e. a clannish behaviour overseas; either an inability to express or a loud aggressive behaviour to perceived wrongs; timid and inward-looking, etc.

Singlish was the half-baked end result of the mother-tongue policy. Over the years, the standard of English in S’pore has been declining. TV Shows like Phua Chu Kang only parodies the underlying language problems in S’pore. For a S’porean who thinks he speaks good English, he would be barely understood in our neighbouring Australia. They’re in for a rude awakening!

Because they are unable to communicate in proper English overseas, most overseas S’porean students studying in US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ tend to congregate together like same bird species. They find comfort in their own type as only they can understand one another. Because of this poor ability in communication skills, both orally and written – S’poreans tend to be ‘order-takers’ than ‘order-givers’ due to lack of confidence and inability to express oneself! Technically, S’poreans are very proficient due to their academic inclination but other than that, they are totally deficient!

The ugly S’porean persona results from this ‘lack’ of self-confidence. It manifest through rudeness and bad behaviour. Because of this inability to communicate well, the ugly S’porean lashes out whenever he or she perceives a lack of respect or some injustice done to them.

The lack of communication skills and English language proficiency were not so bad during the Manufacturing and Commerce era (circa 1980s – 2000s). They were masked by the technical proficiency of the S’porean workers who were diligent in upgrading their technical skills. However, as manufacturing and outsourcing migrated to PRC/India in 2000 onwards – there were mass structural unemployment. The avenues left the unemployed were security guards, taxi drivers, insurance agents, etc. The Internet era (2004 post-dot-com onwards) seemed to have bypass S’pore as the communication and language skills deemed paramount in this area were not evident in this region. It was no coincidence that PM Lee went gung-ho for the casino cum integrated resorts option – there were none left on the table!

Whatever they do, this mother-tongue policy should be replaced by a more pragmatic language policy. If not, it will be a slow death for S’pore and S’poreans alike.

35 Responses to “Mother-tongue policy undermines education and our future”


  1. 1 Jackson Tan 11 May 2010 at 17:55

    Because they are unable to communicate in proper English overseas, most overseas S’porean students studying in US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ tend to congregate together like same bird species. They find comfort in their own type as only they can understand one another. Because of this poor ability in communication skills, both orally and written – S’poreans tend to be ‘order-takers’ than ‘order-givers’ due to lack of confidence and inability to express oneself! Technically, S’poreans are very proficient due to their academic inclination but other than that, they are totally deficient!

    This paragraph caught my eye, and while I cannot say that it is wrong outright — since I have never personally met most overseas Singaporeans studying in the said countries — I think it suffers at least the fallacy of hasty generalisation. I am studying in Australia, and I don’t really observe that phenomena from the Singaporeans here. Singaporeans mix pretty well with people of other nationalities, including Australians. And neither do we congregate any more than other groups like Malaysians or Chinese or Koreans. Of course, it ought to be expected that Singaporeans do drift together because of similar culture and background (not to mention the somewhat queer homey feeling of Singlish that slips back into our words), but I think the author exaggerated the situation.

    For one, for example, I do not stick to the other Singaporeans in my hall much. In fact, I usually hang out with a group comprising two Indians, one American Korean and one (and sometimes another) Australian (and the reason why it’s mainly Asians is entirely another reason). And certainly, I do not observe much communication problems. Not even those with very heavy Singaporean accent. They can understand us, and we can understand them.

    So where does the “order-givers” label come in, if it still applies? I suspect, if it exists, it might have something to do with Singapore’s culture and the education system, which does not promote spontaneous leadership. But that’s a whole different aspect from the mother tongue issue.

    That being said, I am not convinced by the author’s idea that mother tongue is a politically-motivated policy. Nonetheless, I do think that some reform of the PSLE education system is necessary (personally, I’d lean towards something like: 30% English, 25% for two subjects, 20% for weakest subject).

    • 2 Ponder Stibbons 12 May 2010 at 22:53

      Jackson,

      The institution you study at doesn’t have as large a cluster of Singaporeans as places like Cornell, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, Imperial College, UCL, Monash (just to name a few places — there are lots more). I’ve observed that the larger the Singaporean community in a university is, the more Singaporeans are likely to cluster together.

      Whether the causes for this clustering are those Jonno suggests is another matter.

      • 3 Jackson Tan 13 May 2010 at 10:55

        Ponder Stibbons,

        I see… but at least it is not as widespread as portrayed in the article. Nonetheless, I still question if this is a unique Singaporean trait, or the same would apply to people of other nationalities.

        Nonetheless, I came across this article on BBC which perhaps suggest a reason why, according to Jonno, Singaporeans tend to be followers than leaders:

        “Eton also allows a degree of dissent and, to a certain extent, encourages it. That’s very helpful to anyone who wants a leadership role.”

        The article is examining the reason behind why Eton has produced so many prime ministers (David Cameron being the 19th British PM from Eton).

  2. 4 Anonymous 11 May 2010 at 18:28

    what an ignorant writer. Unbelievable.
    Very narrow minded too.

  3. 5 yuen 11 May 2010 at 19:06

    First. conservatism has just won another battle: Mr Ng has apologized for having mis-spoken and being mis-understood, and PM himself has declared no weighting change.

    So the author believes Singapore’s second language policy was designed to upset the english-oriented, freedom-minded population. encouraging them to migrate? I guess the government would deny it, and no one would be able to present hard evidence to contradict the denial; at the same time, I am sure many would believe the conspiracy theory, just as among the “chinese educated” (who exactly are they?) there are many who believe the low standard of chinese language among the school childre was “because the government (from the british onward) was anti chinese”. My own experience with children learning Chinese in primary and secondary schools leads me to disbelieve such simple explanations, but wont go into this can of worms here.

    I also have doubts about the notion that the second language policy caused the phenomemon of Singlish, poor communication skills, and low social grace: if people speak Hokkien, Tewchew, Cantonese or Hainan at home, would that help them to learn English better? But again, I doubt anyone can prove anything one way or the other.

  4. 6 Matalamak 11 May 2010 at 21:08

    It is simplistic, and even off the mark, to blame mother tongue policy for all the ills that the writer described.

    Mother tongue policy may not even be a election concern or issue.

    There are far more crucial issues that affect Singaporeans to write and debate on.

  5. 7 Raelynn 11 May 2010 at 21:36

    agree with the anon at may 11 18:28. i couldnt believe that there is someone who actually thinks that majority of the Singaporeans cant be understood overseas. The thing about most singaporeans is that we actually do know when to switch out of singlish to proper english. we do think before opening our mouth you know when we go to english speaking countries, because we definitely dont want to sound like idiots.

  6. 8 Chun Wee 11 May 2010 at 21:57

    This is a very poor essay. It is little more than a rant and does not fit at all with the rest of the articles on the site.

    “The shift towards a mother-tongue policy occurred as the English-speakers began to agitate for more democracy and reforms. How better to alienate them in one brush stroke than to make mother-tongue mandatory? In silent and inconsequential exile, assertive minorities like Eurasians, Anglicized Indians and Chinese began a slow migration out of Singapore. Of course, the majority stood with the govt on this issue as they had everything to gain, and it showered the ruling party with electoral favours with 60-70% of the votes in the heartlands.”

    This paragraph is chock-full of extremely questionable assumptions. Does the author have any facts and figures to back up his claims? How can he prove that the mother tongue policy was implemented to exile the politically aware? If he cannot present evidence then it is all mere fantasy, a conspiracy theory the author cooked up in his own mind.

    “Language skills are important but they should not be restricted to mother-tongue – it’s backward and restrictive! It also creates narrow-mindedness!”

    The mother tongue policy does not restrict Singaporeans from learning other languages. Singaporeans are free to learn whatever languages they want. So how is it restrictive? Mother tongue is mandatory, but so is the learning of mathematics or science. This is because a foundational knowledge in all these areas is important for our students. To give a very simple example of the importance of mother tongue, a doctor in Singapore may have to treat patients from the older generation who cannot speak English. Will it not be much easier if the doctor can speak Mandarin or dialects, or even some Malay perhaps? Will he not be able to better understand and help his patients?

    Similarly, if the younger generation are not given at least some conversational knowledge of the mother tongues, it could alienate them from the older generation. We don’t need more barriers being set up amongst our population.

    “For a S’porean who thinks he speaks good English, he would be barely understood in our neighbouring Australia.”

    This is most definitely untrue. I think I speak good English, I have been to Australia with my family numerous times and no one there had problems understanding us. The author is exaggerating.

    “Singlish was the half-baked end result of the mother-tongue policy. ”

    And yet countries all around the world without a bilingual policy have developed localized forms of English too. The point is that language changes and evolves over time. English is notorious for readily absorbing words and phrases from other languages – a good many of the words we have in the English language today were originally French. Singlish is merely English with loan words from regional languages like Malay and Mandarin.

    It is far too simplistic to point to a local variant of English, dismiss it as “half-baked” and attribute its cause to a single factor. The author obviously knows little about the nature of Singlish and the English language in general.

    “If not, it will be a slow death for S’pore and S’poreans alike.”

    Oh, spare us the drama, please. It is entirely fitting given the abysmal quality of the article that it ends with this sort of apocalyptic claptrap.

    • 9 Lionel Proctor 31 December 2013 at 13:56

      Yes I would agree that the author’s assertion that the mother tongue policy is responsible for mass emigration from Singapore is utter nonsense! The mother tongue policy was implemented as means of preserving the cultures of the various ethnic groups in Singapore. In fact, the Singaporean Indians in particular should be grateful for this language policy as the Tamil language is still thriving in Singapore among their younger generation. Contrast that with neighbouring Malaysia where no such policy exists in the Malay-centric national schools. This is further compounded by the fact that Tamil-medium schools there are poorly funded and not an option for students from middle class Indian families. The result of this is that many young urban educated Malaysian Indians are no longer able to speak their mother tongue be it Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi etc. Of course, in the case of the Singaporean Chinese community, the mother tongue policy has in fact led to a decline in the use of their actual mother tongues which are Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka etc. What is needed to rectify this situation is simply a reintroduction of dialects in Singapore through the media and such.

  7. 10 Yuen2 11 May 2010 at 22:48

    Sorry, there are so many gross generalisations in this article. Second language or MTL is not just about mandarin. Please check out other discussion forums, e.g. Temasek Review, some Facebook pages, etc.

  8. 11 yawningbread 12 May 2010 at 01:05

    Yuen wrote: “First. conservatism has just won another battle: Mr Ng has apologized for having mis-spoken and being mis-understood, and PM himself has declared no weighting change.”

    I don’t know… I wouldn’t call it winning or losing. It’s pretty obvious, after we’ve all had a chance to think about it that just tweaking the weightage creates more problems and complications than it solves.

    This other statement in the Straits Times Breaking News story 11 May 2010 (headline: No lowering of weightage) is more interesting: “what will change is the way the mother tongue languages are taught and examined”. And rightly so. The problem really wasn’t weightage, it was the teaching method and the expected standards.

  9. 12 yuen 12 May 2010 at 07:26

    >the teaching method and the expected standards.

    I guess many experts will be working very hard on this, and ST will soon be touting their achievements; mere parents like myself…;

    for many years, experts and officials (and ST) told us that lack of motivation was the main problem, and these days they keep telling us how economically valuable Mandarin is; well we already know that; in fact, we all know someone who does business (and keeps mistress) in China these days…; in the mean time, I have heard this again and again from friends and colleages “when our kids started school we thought they would do OK in Chinese – we speak Mandarin at home – but …” and most of them would be saying this to me in Mandarin.

    the problem is not going to be solved by uttering platitudes and simplistic characterizations

    (I see another Yuen making comments; clicking on my ID leads to my blog, click his/her/their ID does not, and I assume his/her/their email address is different)

    [added by Yawning Bread – sorry, I didn’t notice it was a different person. I have now changed his handle to Yuen2]

  10. 13 recruit ong 12 May 2010 at 10:25

    “Because they are unable to communicate in proper English overseas, most overseas S’porean students studying in US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ tend to congregate together like same bird species.”

    How about PRCs, banglas, thais, mayanmars etc all congregate at where they congregate because they are unable to communicate properly? Hahahaha! Epic failed logic lah!

    Mr Bread u highlight this article to embarrass the writer right? haha

  11. 14 Raelynn 12 May 2010 at 10:29

    i do think that there’s something wrong with the way it is being examined and taught. many people in our local law school obtained As for their mother tongue (chinese language in this case) but they can barely speak/write chinese. i’m not saying that all of them are like that, i’m saying that there’s a significant proportion.

  12. 15 KiWeTO 12 May 2010 at 10:45

    Ah hm,

    just because it was rant-y in nature does not denigrate the viability of it’s perspective.

    Overseas, Singlish (or more accurately malayglish or SEAglish?) creeps in when groups of Singaporeans/Malaysians/Indonesians congregate. Does that make it wrong? It makes us feel more comfortable with people who live in a similar region. (feels like home?)

    As for whither Singaporeans can code-switch between ENGLISH as it is understood and Singlish as it is conveyed, I have serious doubts about the younger generations’ ability to do so in their minds. (and no, no statistics, just day-to-day dealings with them.)

    Whither dialects or Mandarin at home, the very fact is that the move towards Mandarin was most probably politically motivated to tear Singaporeans away from their China-based clan/dialect identities back in the 60s/70s. Did it succeed? probably. I have no clan identity as a member of the Henghua dialect as I was never taught the dialect, nor given any exposure to it as a child.

    We wear tribal identities as we desire. More Singaporean-born Chinese find tribal identities in football clubs than in their clan associations for one. Singapore wanted to create it’s own Chinese (non-dialect) identity in the 70s. It succeeded, at the cost which we pay today, being un-lingual instead of monolingual or bilingual.

    Many in most other countries seem to survive on one language pretty fine. They are given the option of taking on second languages or third languages because they want to. Was the MTL policies needed in the 70s to distract the then politically-aware Chinese majority?

    Now here is a sacred cow to slay – if all our educational syllabi are taught in the official working language of English – and mother-tongue-languages are taught in mother tongue, is it any wonder it feels alien in the classroom? Why even weigh mother tongue at all then in a PSLE/O&A-levels? After all, nobody overseas in the tertiary world cares if we have a second language proficiency, only that we can survive studying in whatever local language that university teaches in.

    And as for the earlier comments who are dismissive, perhaps, it might also show generational gaps? Or am I overgeneralizing too? If YawningBread thought the perspective was different enough to put it separate and invite comment on it, I find it very sad that the first few comments are denigrating towards the perspective itself (and probably derogatory towards the ‘rant-ist’ in itself). And how those few comments seem to take certain ruling-party assumption/perspectives as sacred truth without question.

    As for freedom of choice to learn languages – ha ha ha. Our overwhelmed school children have time for a 3rd language of choice given all the additional mandarin tuition that they undergo just to keep up?

    Apologies to other mother tongues – but I can only speak from my perspective of the mandarin-MTL. I understand (probably from previous YB essays) that the Tamil-MTL students also have much difficulty dealing with it. And they get even less attention. (was it in another essay that also mentioned that our Malay-MTL requirements are way lower than our neighbours?)

    As for knowing Singrlish, I am no expert, but the common use of it is in the substitution of mandarin (malay also?) grammar structure in an English sentence. And having the occasional chance to peek at essays that our teachers’ mark, and hearing their despair over their students’ indifference/inability to comprehend the concept of code-switching much less the issue of ever-evolving English grammar, I will firmly plant my flag with our guest rant-ist…. because it WILL (and already has) become a problem.

    E.o.M.
    [I wonder who will start ranting on the SMS text appearing in english essays.]

  13. 16 Middle Ground 12 May 2010 at 10:52

    I think the truth lies in the centre. For many English educated, it is possible to survive without MT in singapore, as English is the main language of singapore. They see very little use of chinese. However for the other camp, it is their culture and thinking language. it is very much of their existence. They do not understand why the monolingual english speaking camp can totally ignore MT and live life without an anchoring cultural root.

    As a policy maker, they can’t satisfy both camps but only to try to bring both camps closer and create a common ground for both. It may take more than a generation to create this common ground. Personally, i do not think that our MT policy is useless as i have seen pple who are able to appreciate both cultures/languages from the east and west. I can watch mandarin plays and english plays at ease and understand the nuances. Isn’t it an asset? If the government succeed in the long run in creating more bilingual pple, these groups will form the majority and the gap between the monolingual groups will diminish over years.

  14. 17 angkujupi 12 May 2010 at 10:59

    Now wasn’t it some time ago, PM Lee said garmen will listen to feedback but NOT give in to lobbying & overt pressure being exerted on the govt ?

    With the Chinese Chamber traditionalists & Hong Lim Park Petition, don’t that constitute lobbying ?

    So, Ng Eng Hen backtracked, apologised for giving wrong impression … what a cowardly comedown from a declared tenet of dealing with ‘lobbying’ !

    Different ways of teaching & examination ? Hee Hee, if i am MOE, one simple solution is maintain weightage but drop standards, make MT Exam easier so weak students can all get a boost of confidence & ‘score’ higher grades ! See, no wetightage change & really, only a matter of a ‘different way of examining’….

  15. 18 yawningbread 12 May 2010 at 11:34

    Recruit Ong – No, I didn’t highlight Jonno’s comment to embarrass him. This is not the way I do things. Like KiWeTo said, if one looks past the impassioned style, one can still see valid points. True, Jonno’s arguments may be subjectively inspired, but at its core, he’s saying this: trying to impose two languages on children – and not just the bright, capable ones, but on all children – will result in a society that is fluent in none. I don’t think one should dismiss this argument so quickly. Many other observers have said the same thing. What Jonno has gone on to say is that when people lack communication skills, certain behavioural and psycho-social mindsets result that hamper interaction with others…. again, not something we should so easily dismiss.

    His points do cry out for empirical support, and until then, we might say let’s reserve judgement, but by the same token, let’s not work ourselves up into modes of denial and refuse to entertain ideas just because they are not what we have always believed.

  16. 19 yawningbread 12 May 2010 at 11:45

    Raelynn – Do most Singaporeans know how to code switch? This may be the case if one looks only at university graduates, but if one looks at the vastly greater numbers, i.e. our sales clerks, the factory floor supervisors with polytechnic diplomas, the man behind the camera at the TV studios, it is doubtful. This does not mean that other English-dialect speakers do not understand them, they do, sometimes with a little effort, other times less so. But let’s not kid ourselves, the average Singaporean is not impressive re his language skills, and what’s more, in my biew, he knows it. He knows he is inadequate. And Jonno’s point is that knowledge of one’s inadequacy has consequential effects.

    I would think the debate that Jonno has started is not about how good our language skills are – the easily observed evidence is all too obvious to deny – but whether (a) Singaporeans know their inadequacies and (b) how valid are his views re consequential effects and (c) how serious those consequential effects are.

  17. 20 yawningbread 12 May 2010 at 11:56

    In a comment under the article Mother-tongue conservatives voice existential fears, Ben (10 May 2010, 22:52h) actually made an important point that readers seem to be missing.

    He said, unlike English, Math and Science, there isn’t one common second language exam. There are at least three, set and marked by different teachers. How do we know they are of the same level of difficulty? If they vary, then how meaningful are the consolidated scores?

    And that reminds me to remind everybody here commenting on this issue: Every time you write something, before you click “submit”, please re-read what you have written, substituting in your mind the words “Mother-tongue” or “Chinese” with another language that is available in Singapore’s school system, e.g. Tamil, Gujerati…. and check to see whether your argument still makes sense.

    Another exercise you should do while you proofread: Imagine the person who is reading your comment is Malay… how does your argument play in his mind?

    In fact, here’s a request. Do these mind exercises while re-reading all the comments above…. re-assess the arguments accordingly.

  18. 21 Raelynn 12 May 2010 at 13:05

    dear yawningbread, my understanding of jonno’s article was that he directed criticism at Singaporean students overseas whom he claims are not able to code switch when necessary or when the situation calls for it. If we’re talking about overseas students, then we’re pretty much talking about university students, aren’t we? i apologise if i have misunderstood the context.

    granted, the group that you have mentioned might be a little more challenged to code switch as smoothly. but whether we like it or not, in each country there is a slang or usage of english that makes them uniquely theirs when looking at the general population. even brits dont speak the queen’s english on a daily basis (or maybe we have the false impression that brits can choose to speak the queen’s english if they choose to. my understanding that most brits dont and their english is still pretty much influenced by where they come from). does this mean that their conversational english is any more superior than singlish (assuming that we are comparing british conversational english spoken in their homeland versus singlish spoken in singapore)?

    it is indeed and interesting point regarding whether Singaporeans know their inadequacies. while i admit there are those whose english even after code switching make me cringe, i fail to see that majority of singaporeans in the younger generation who are in their 20s to late 20s are unable to code switch properly to be understood easily. i am in my own world, perhaps?

  19. 22 Middle ground 12 May 2010 at 21:44

    One full bucket is good or two half buckets? This is the question. It really depend on individuals. To me I like two half buckets cos my worldview is much wider. I am exposed to 2 diff cultures than just 1.

  20. 23 KiWeTO 12 May 2010 at 22:09

    there are two issues here – Mother Tongue (Chinese)Language and 2nd Language Weightage in examinations.
    (and let’s not get started for people who come from Persia or north India… can they take Urdu or Iranian as their 2ndL?)

    The Chinese language as a 2CL was perhaps politically motivated.
    The 2ndL bilingual attempt was perhaps idealistic.

    But more and more evidence (all of remembered history) have shown that humans are not equal – so why do we expect each student to achieve the same high standards as their fellow students?

    Proficiency and competence should be the focus of a bilingual language policy. However, our exam-focused strategy has led us to see excellence as the desired outcome. And all our friendly MoE Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) focus on excellence more than the achievement of competence.

    And when teachers are rewarded on the basis of good KPIs that only focus on excellence, then the teachers would necessary focus on excellence (telling students to drop subjects because they are NOT-excellent at it for fear of affecting school ranking scores). And then when society rewards focus on excellence, will students again be told that excellence is the only thing that matters. And then parents put even more pressure on students to achieve excellence.

    Not every progeny is going to be Tiger Woods, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking or Woody Allen. (and even with these role models, would any parent wish Hawking’s condition on their child if it meant that the child would be a net-positive contributor to society?)

    Have our parenting focus gone so far into expecting excellence that competence and proficiency is not enough?

    My general feel is that we are neither proficient nor competent anymore (were we ever) in our bilingualism. Is that fair? I am not bilingual myself. Perhaps competent at one, and generally comprehensible at the other. Is that bilingualism or one-and-half-again-lingualism?

    Is my education outcome then considered a failure? I made it through university in Singapore (which requires proficiency in 2ndLanguage to a certain degree), whilst going into every 2CL exam with fears of failing to meet even proficiency.

    What do WE want as a society as outcomes for our students?

    Then we can start to ask – what do we need to do to get to where we want to go.

    E.o.M.

  21. 24 Helix 13 May 2010 at 01:01

    [To say that learning Chinese would help local businessman do well in business in China is bull-shit! US & European businessmen have been doing business in China without any knowledge of Chinese and they are doing very well!]

    I think this need to be backed up. US and European businesses operating in China are mainly big corporates that have the ability to hire translators, language experts and local experts. Imagine that you are individuals or small enterprises going to China to look for business opportunity, then knowing the language will definitely help alot. For example, you have an idea to bring the Singapore coffee shop concept to China. It won’t do if you don’t know any Chinese. That said, if you do not have a good product, no amount of language skill will help.

  22. 25 Helix 13 May 2010 at 01:12

    Regarding the accusation that singlish and sub-standard English is due to mother-tongue policy.

    Doesn’t the argument above sounds familiar? It was Teng Liang Hong who said that because Mandarin is indeed the mother tongue of majority of the Chinese (he didn’t mention Malay or Indian) and they struggled with English. This is the cause for sub-standard English.

  23. 26 recruit ong 13 May 2010 at 10:59

    “Recruit Ong – No, I didn’t highlight Jonno’s comment to embarrass him. This is not the way I do things. Like KiWeTo said, if one looks past the impassioned style, one can still see valid points. True, Jonno’s arguments may be subjectively inspired, but at its core, he’s saying this: trying to impose two languages on children – and not just the bright, capable ones, but on all children – will result in a society that is fluent in none. I don’t think one should dismiss this argument so quickly. Many other observers have said the same thing. What Jonno has gone on to say is that when people lack communication skills, certain behavioural and psycho-social mindsets result that hamper interaction with others…. again, not something we should so easily dismiss.

    His points do cry out for empirical support, and until then, we might say let’s reserve judgement, but by the same token, let’s not work ourselves up into modes of denial and refuse to entertain ideas just because they are not what we have always believed.”

    have u heard japanese speak english? have u heard our foreign talent scholarship holders from china etc speak english? hahaha!
    yet u hv these ppl having no problem getting admission into local uni. is fluency a big criteria?

    so why when it comes to Sgians this obsession with fluency?

    the key is literacy.
    and really u can dig up all the pseudo-psycho-neuro-empirical justifications possible and there will still be no conclusion and end to this. Becos the fact is MOST people have no problem mastering or passing two languages.

    the education system at primary school level certainly needs to be looked at, but IMO it is the REVERSE that should be done. INCREASE weightage on 1st and 2nd language weightage, reduce weightage on maths, science, etc! Increase weightage will drive greater emphasis on the soft subjects like languages, this is crucial becos it is the soft subjects that are the primary foundations for the eventual development and prowess in hard subjects like science and maths later on. And these foundations need to be strenghtened at the pci school level and not later.

  24. 27 Now grateful for being 'forced' to learn Mandarin 13 May 2010 at 16:10

    “Because they are unable to communicate in proper English overseas, most overseas S’porean students studying in US, UK, Canada, Australia and NZ tend to congregate together like same bird species. They find comfort in their own type as only they can understand one another.”

    “i couldnt believe that there is someone who actually thinks that majority of the Singaporeans cant be understood overseas” and code-switching…

    And when we say “understanding”, do we literally mean understanding the response when we ask for directions or when we order a burger and soda? The questions also is if we find ourselves having to have our guard up when speaking with a non-Singaporean overseas or are we as relaxed as if speaking Singlish with a Singaporean?

    It has been 10 years since I graduated from uni (Aust) and when I meet my former schoolmates from secondary school especially, guess what? We cluster too – Glee vs Korean drama fans, 8days vs NYT readers. Sure we can understand each other perfectly but you know who gets the joke 5 secs later or not at all. And such factors I think also greatly affect the relationships/ friendships we build as fairly permanent residents overseas. So when the writer says Singaporean (students) cluster due to language ‘issues’, it’s really not that unbelievable…

  25. 28 George 13 May 2010 at 21:01

    Alex,
    It would not be wrong to say that there are as many angles as there are views in the collection of comments.

    I have the feeling too that many are simply not listening enough and many not caring enough to listen to another viewpoint.

    It is apparent that it is hard to be objective discussing an issue that touches language, culture or heritage, esp. one’s own.

    It therefore seems to me that the biggest error made by govt is to inject into a straightforward issue of language learning emotive elements and linkages like race, heritage and culture by changing (and unreasonably so) a perfectly appropriate and proper nomenclature like ‘2nd language’, to ‘mother tongue’. Further confusion is assured
    when Mandarin (a lingo introduced by ancient rulers of China to facilitate communications among diverse clan and linguistic groups) is put on an equal footing with the true mother tongues of other local racial and linguistic groups like the Malays and Tamil Indians etc.

    But above all the gravest miscalculation of the govt must surely be the scant recognition (or gross underestimation) given to the level of difficulties involved in attaining an acceptable level of proficiency in it (oral and written, esp. the latter). The rest of the story, as far as Mandarin is concerned, is nothing more than chop and change, chop and change and still more chop and change, policy-wise. While at the receiving end we have parents, whose children find the going heavy, literally driving the latter round the bend to achieve the ‘destiny-defining’ all important good to excellent pass in Mandarin in order to get into a choice secondary school. To the children who are inadequately blessed with the requisite virtuosity the task is virtually Herculean, like climbing Everest without oxygen support! And it doesn’t help one bit when teachers are unsympathetic or unable to comprehend their difficulties.

  26. 29 yuen 14 May 2010 at 02:16

    this is not really a “culture” issue – the people who agitated against change were not chinese culture specialists/chauvinists; it is not even a “communal” issue – any weightage change would affect the malays and indians in the same way

    it is first of all a “business” issue: parents and students who invested heavily in getting better chinese grades are against change; those less successful are amenable

    it is then a “political” issue: some want to use the rather abruptly raised idea (misunderstood or not) as evidence of the government’s lack of consultation, and some see it as evidence of division within PAP

  27. 30 Mother Tongue Language? 17 May 2010 at 15:10

    Wasn’t it appropriately called “2nd Language” until old the harry “thinking-cap” decided that “MTL” is better! Better for promoting Mandarin for China business and working connections. As well as for the “Chinese Racial” mix in HDB estates too?

    Another harry red-herring in the offing of years gone by and inherited? Looks like both pa and son just love to “fix” than solve. Such short term “solutions” if they can be called that SHOWS! Am sure you know what this means.

    All such stuff are for their “self-renewal” younger ministers to solve another time for GE gains? Cheap scape.
    Like is DR. GOH KS’s state funeral for the coming GE so near as many have suggested. Because OTC as president didn’t get it, why a DPM? Because he had more of the ideas that old harry had been claiming at least some as his own? Wayang is wayang and no need for proof. We ain’t “daft” hor!

  28. 31 (=^-^=) 19 May 2010 at 15:49

    A tad disappointed that such a bigoted article was featured on YB. And I agree that it is more a rant and brought forth very little credible arguments. I would like to be objective and think this article is not actually targeting a certain “mother tongue” but passages like

    “To the majority, what’s the purpose of learning Mandarin?”

    “Only those with chauvinistic ties to the motherland ie. China harped on learning Mandarin.”

    are hard to ignore.

    I don’t mean to alienate our friends from other ethnic groups when I say the whole argument really is between the “Chinese Speaking” and “English Speaking” Chinese. And if most of you agree, then my next questions would be why is this more prevalent with the Chinese? Do we have similar trend with other languages/ethnic groups at all? If there isn’t, perhaps therein lies the solution…

    Another point, hanging out with your own people when you are overseas is a very common phenomenon. It is not the language per se that drove them to do it, it is usually a combination of companionship, fear of the unknown, reject from the locals etc.

  29. 32 YCK 2 June 2010 at 19:24

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, I would like to highlight the mistaken use of the word “dialects” to describe other Chinese languages, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc. From the linguistic point, dialects are mutually intelligible to a large extent, but by this understanding none of the languages above are dialects of Mandarin. On this basis, Hokkien can be considered a dialect of Teochew.

    We are familiar with the Confucianist admonishment, “名不正则言不顺”. Before we start anything, we have to be sure of the correctness of terminology (正名). The problem plauging our second language education is that its MTL definition is worng. Erecting the system on such faulty foundation is like building a sky-scrapper on a marsh.

    The fact that there is conservative support for the empahsis of MTL Mandarin also stems from the mistaken idea that the mother tongues of the early generations of Singapore Chinese are in fact dialects of Mandarin. It seems to escape them that before it became the national language of China, all Chinese languages are equally valid carriers of Chinese culture. So what the conservative conserving?

  30. 33 EP 14 June 2010 at 14:09

    I agree with YCK, especially about the important idea of correcting the terminology, in order to clarify the issues. To correct YCK though (apologies), I must say though that Hokkien (more accurately, the Xiamen/Zhangzhou/Quanzhou topolects) and Teochew are usually considered subdivisions of Minnan (one of the eight main languages in the Chinese family), which also includes Hainanese. Therefore, it would be inaccurate to say that ‘Hokkien’ is a dialect of Teochew, just as it would be to say Teochew is a dialect of ‘Hokkien’.

    Some of these Chinese conservatives/chauvinists seem to be using flawed arguments, especially that of Mandarin being important as a carrier of culture. Unfortunately, it seems that each region, each ‘dialect’ group has its own distinct culture, and often best transmitted through its own regional language. For example, if one wants to appreciate Yue opera, one needs to be able to understand the Yue language (i.e. Cantonese); the same goes for learning Teochew opera, or Hakka folksongs etc. Reducing the diversity of Chinese to just one variant of one language (i.e. Putonghua, based on a Mandarin dialect) seems to be short-sighted and simplistic.

    This same blinkered view has affected policy-makers in Singapore, who seem to think that Mandarin is the mother tongue of most Singapore Chinese when it is clearly not. For many Chinese, learning Mandarin is like learning a second or third language, but teaching methods seem to be based on the assumption that Chinese students are going for classes already exposed to Mandarin. Moreover, many Chinese families are no longer even speaking any non-Mandarin Chinese language at home, and only using English. Mandarin is hardly a mother tongue for many students.

    Now, on Jonno’s article. I agree with Yawning Bread that Jonno brings up some interesting points, but many posters who left comments also disagreed with some of these points (or at least, the expression of these points and the examples used). Some of our own experiences have been different, and thus our perspectives and views are differently shaped.

    On interacting with other English-speakers:
    I have always felt that Singaporeans are some of the most easily-understood English speakers in the world. One reason is that we seem to have less of a (bizarre) accent. Another is that we tend to be more versatile in adopting accents, and also in code-switching accents. The example of Australians not understanding Singaporeans is unfortunate, since Australians themselves are known to have a strong accent and localised English, which English speakers from elsewhere find difficult to comprehend! Most monolingual English speakers seem to be able to only use their own variety of English and accent, and rarely do you hear them switching their accents to try to make themselves understood.

    On Singlish:
    Singlish seems to be quite maligned. Singlish is not a “half-baked end result of the mother-tongue policy”, simply because Singlish has a longer history than our mother tongue policy (please at least read the Wikipedia article on Singlish).

    The problem seems to be that of young(er) Singaporeans preferring to (or only able to) use Singlish over Standard English. The root cause may not be the mother tongue policy. I favour the view that teaching methods for English have been a problem (an example being the elimination of teaching of grammar during English lessons) in recent years. Not surprisingly, many young Singaporeans do not understand why they do not make syntactically correct sentences, especially since many of them do not have the intuition of native speakers (if they do not come from an English-speaking home).

  31. 34 Anonymous 10 August 2010 at 19:47

    Epic Fail.

  32. 35 Teen 2 November 2011 at 01:16

    It seems that there is always two sides to each issue. On many occasions, I have seen people lamenting abut how their children cannot cope with learning mother tongue (I will use Chinese as an example since I am speaking from my own experiences and am not very sure about how well other students are coping with learning their respective mother tongue) in school and how it is affecting their learning. I come from a family which speak Chinese at home and both of my parents are educated in “Chinese schools”. For me learning Chinese was a joy, it was never difficult. During my lower primary years, I had an extremely difficult time trying to master the English language. More often than not, I was relieved that there was still my Chinese grade to complement my less satisfactory English grade. But I did not hate English. I enjoyed and loved reading English storybooks and even though the learning journey is hard, I did not despise it nor find that it was hindering my learning.

    So next time, before lamenting about how your children cannot cope with learning Chinese, please spare a thought for the other children in the classroom who have to cope with learning English. (these kids have a bigger burden to bear, since all subjects other than mother tongue are taught in English)

    And just a little comment about Singlish. It is something that many Singaporeans relate too and is essentially, an important part of local culture. Singapore is still trying hard to build up a national identity and Singlish can actually contribute to this process. There is no problem with speaking a Singapore-form of English IN Singapore! It is the norm for different countries
    to use slightly different forms of English. And Singlish is certainly not a product of the Chinese policy. It emerged due to the interaction between the different races in Singapore. As Singaporeans, we should be proud of it. I certainly am.

    It is not fair to say that others do not understand Singaporeans when they speak English, heavily accented English from anywhere in the world would be difficult to understand, it all depends on who is the one talking and who is the one listening.


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