The Straits Times says

From tribes to a nation of bilinguals

The predominant home language is a matter of interest as an indicator of language competency and cultural identity. There was a time when language issues were considered political issues, expressed even violently in the 1950s. Framed as a struggle, one might fail to grasp the paradox of linguistic hegemony, as theorised by scholars, which recognises that for a strategy of resistance to succeed, one must yield to it - in the sense of embracing bilingualism rather than monolingualism. However, the choice of a bilingual policy, as a cornerstone of Singapore's education system, was not strategically motivated in that sense but was rooted in pragmatism. English is the means for Singaporeans to "plug into a globalised world", while mother tongues provide "a link to their heritage and Asian cultural roots" and access to regional markets, as the Education Ministry noted.

It is from this perspective that one should see the rise of English to supplant Mandarin as the language most frequently spoken at home, as uncovered by the latest General Household Survey. Almost 37 per cent of residents use English most often at home, compared to about 35 per cent who use Mandarin. But it's not a contest between the two, as the universal usage of English in the public sphere is an established feature of Singapore life. What ought to draw greater attention is the proportion of those who can read and write in at least two languages - 73 per cent now, compared to 56 per cent in 2000. That is an encouraging trend and one that all communities should promote.

Singaporeans should be natural bilinguals because of their multicultural heritage. In a globalised world, it's a prerequisite. Global rankings of the frequent usage of a language as a function of population size place Mandarin at the top. However, English is the one most widely used - spoken at a useful level by 1.75 billion people globally and taught as a foreign language in over 100 countries. For practical reasons, it's useful to have English as the "world language or the lingua franca of the modern era", as described by Unesco. And for cultural reasons, it's necessary to promote mother tongues as a bulwark against the creeping Westernisation of societies.

The paradox faced by multicultural nations like Singapore is that English is seen as the only "neutral" medium for people to express their national identity, defined by cultural theorist Stuart Hall as a way of constructing meanings about the nation with which citizens can identify. This can be resolved, however, when English and mother tongues are collectively tapped to tell common stories, draw from shared memories, and evoke images familiar to all.

Languages should not be viewed as being in competition with each other or at odds with forming a common identity. What everyone should also speak is the language of inclusiveness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'From tribes to a nation of bilinguals'. Print Edition | Subscribe