Why most Singaporeans speak English at home? – A failure of bilingual policy

“I’m from Hong Kong and even though most people here can speak English, amongst ourselves we always speak Chinese. You don’t find HK Chinese people speaking English with each other, or speaking English as a first language. So how come in Singapore many of the Chinese people prefer to speak in English? Are you ashamed of being Chinese? Apparently the number of Singaporean Chinese families speaking English at home is rapidly increasing.”

“Despite a policy of dialect deprivation, the Chinese language standard of Singapore students remains inferior to that of their peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These two places have all along merged their proud Cantonese and Hokkien heritage.”

Seeing the headline on the The Sunday Times’s “English in school, mandarin at home” (Oct 8, 2011)  quoting former PM Lee Kuan Yew urging parents to ensure the young do not lose grasped of their mother tongue. A few things came to mind on that exact policy that pushed by the man himself, the bilingual policy was implemented with good intention but many unintended consequences, and for that he will have to take the credit or blame as judged by the historians to come:

  • A whole new generation of youngsters many of them hate the learning of their mother tongue (in particular the Chinese descendents).
  • A convoluted spoken English known as Singlish which mixes commonly used words from dialects, Chinese, Malay and Indian terms and grammatically incorrect sentences which nevertheless much shorter than the otherwise correct spoken English. (E.g. “Where Got?” instead of “Is there such a thing happening?”)
  • A whole generation of Chinese residents who are unable to converse in proper Mandarin without involving some words in English, just watch the Ch8 News at night when the reporters try interviewing man-on-the-streets. Fewer than 5% of the population can truly master both English and Chinese (probably higher for the Malays and Indians).
  • The lost of many traditions in one generation from differing morale values, religions, cultural practices and languages. History will judge the price that Singapore needs to pay for such drastic shift in social behaviour.

Below is an exerpt from Lee Kuan Yew’s interview with CNA: “We started the wrong way,” Lee told Channel NewsAsia. “We insisted on ting xie (listening), mo xie (dictation) — madness!” He confessed that he still cannot speak Mandarin perfectly, even after over 40 years of learning it. “Nobody can master two languages at the same level. If (you think) you can, you’re deceiving yourself. My daughter is a neurologist, and late in my life she told me language ability and intelligence are two different things,” he said. “Successive generations of students paid a heavy price, because of my ignorance, by my insistence on bilingualism.”

In his latest book “My Lifelong Challenge”, Lee recounted that despite sending three children to Chinese schools, likewise for his grandchildren, his grandchildren these days speak mainly English. He speaks to them in Mandarin, they reply in Mandarin and then switch to English. Such is the price we pay for overemphasising of the use of English language while demolishing the dialects.

Related links:

Bilingual proficiency is about attitude

Source: The Straits Times,  14 Dec 2011

VIRTUALLY every idea of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s on learning a second language finds professional concurrence by the experts.

As Dr Yow Wei Quin (‘Start earlier, and change approach’; Monday) noted, these include exposure at an early age to take full advantage of an absorbent infant brain, and immersion in a favourable environment to make the learning process relevant to daily practical applications.

But there is no specific scientific evidence that exposure to vernacular dialects is harmful to the mastery of Chinese.

Despite a policy of dialect deprivation, the Chinese language standard of Singapore students remains inferior to that of their peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. These two places have all along merged their proud Cantonese and Hokkien heritage, respectively, with the predominant vernacular of mainland China, that is, Mandarin, and have done better.

Contrary to Dr Yow’s view, the formal introduction of Chinese into students’ curriculum in Singapore does not start at age seven.

As long as 20 years ago, my children already had Chinese lessons in nursery classes, and these continued without interruption during their formative years.

Despite achieving distinctions in the important examinations, they do not pretend to have mastery of the language. Singaporeans seemingly are not gifted with the spoken word.

This applies even to English, our professed first language and lingua franca, where we have native-level proficiency in writing while being stilted, garbled and grammatically incoherent during speech.

I am constantly amazed at how mainland Chinese arriving in Singapore at the ages of 10 to 12, who barely speak a word of English, manage to ace their General Paper after six years of immersion in our educational system, whereas Singaporeans flounder.

Contrary to what Dr Yow thinks, something needs to be tweaked here, and it appears to be our attitudes and not our education system.

Dr Yik Keng Yeong