Forum: Choice of language used can unite or alienate

 Stock photo of an asian family celebrating Chinese New Year at home.
Stock photo of an asian family celebrating Chinese New Year at home.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has urged Singaporeans to "put in more effort to encourage the use of Mandarin in our daily lives, and find ways to... preserve the uniqueness of our Mandarin" (S'pore must guard against losing its bilingual edge: PM Lee, Oct 23).

In heeding that, we must also guard against two potential pitfalls.

First, we have to ensure that the mother tongue languages do not become so much of a default language that we end up erasing a major factor that glues the different ethnic groups together - the ability to communicate in one common language, English.

It has become increasingly common for colleagues and schoolmates in group discussions to speak only in Mandarin when the majority in the group are ethnic Chinese. This will make those in the group who do not speak Mandarin feel excluded.

The fact that many households across all major ethnic groups speak mostly English at home is actually positive. It shows that Singapore has not developed linguistic enclaves and that Singaporeans understand that English should always have paramount priority in our multi-ethnic society.

It has become increasingly common for colleagues and schoolmates in group discussions to speak only in Mandarin when the majority in the group are ethnic Chinese.

Second, even as we embrace Singaporean Mandarin as a part of our heritage, priority must first be given to learn standard Mandarin. With the rise of China and the opportunities that fluency in Mandarin presents, it is critical that Singaporeans (and not only ethnic Chinese) be encouraged to learn proper, standard Mandarin. Singaporean Mandarin will be of little use in China or Taiwan, except for us to be the butt of jokes for our "funny" Mandarin.

Like Singlish, Singaporean Mandarin is fine to use only if Singaporeans first master the mother languages. Code-switch to creole English or Mandarin by all means on informal occasions, but only if you have a strong foundation in the languages in their proper forms. Fluency only in creole will open no doors for Singaporeans in foreign countries.

Agnes Sng Hwee Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2019, with the headline 'Choice of language used can unite or alienate'. Print Edition | Subscribe