Reinvent the Speak Mandarin Campaign

In the 38 years since its inception, the Speak Mandarin Campaign has arguably produced mixed results (Getting translations right shows respect, by Dr V. Subramaniam; July 21).

The programme did succeed in its main purpose, which was to standardise the use of Mandarin in place of the various dialects.

Less than 16.5 per cent of ethnic Chinese households (or 12.2 per cent of the general population) use a dialect such as Hokkien or Cantonese as the main spoken language at home.

Conversely, the use of standard Mandarin in everyday life now stands at approximately 35 per cent of all Singaporean households.

At the same time, of course, there has been much debate surrounding the loss of dialect-based heritage and cultural identity.

Perhaps more disconcerting is the general standard of Mandarin and written Chinese, of which the gaffes committed at the Speak Mandarin Campaign launch are merely a symptom (Language gaffes: Two event organisers say sorry; July 12).

Despite possessing basic literacy in the language, many Mandarin speakers resort to non-standard phraseology, or use English fragments and syntax to produce the notorious "Chinglish" hybrid.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself conceded that Singapore's bilingual policy had not produced the intended mastery of either language.

The advent of computerised communication has further given rise to unusual vocabulary and invented shorthand.

Non-standard Mandarin also undermines one of the Speak Mandarin Campaign's secondary objectives - to facilitate contact, and by extension economic ties, with other Mandarin-speaking nations.

In view of its middling track record, and considering the substantially different challenges that mother tongues now face in the modern age, perhaps the Speak Mandarin Campaign, in its present form, has outlived its usefulness.

Chinese is a relatively difficult written language and a unique spoken language; proficiency in it demands great effort and discipline from both the individual and broader society.

A radical new approach may very well be necessary.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'Reinvent the Speak Mandarin Campaign'. Print Edition | Subscribe