Forum: Singaporeans must treasure their mother tongues

Guangyang Primary School commemorates Racial Harmony Day.
Guangyang Primary School commemorates Racial Harmony Day.PHOTO: ST FILE

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2020, with the headline 'Singaporeans must treasure their mother tongues'. Print Edition | Subscribe