While bilingualism has long been touted as one of Singapore's strengths, many European students are already learning many languages, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung yesterday.
He recounted how his European classmates all knew at least three languages, when they took the Master of Business Administration programme at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Mr Ong shared the anecdote to make the point why Singapore should encourage the learning of foreign languages, during a panel discussion at the opening of a two-week project that will see European ambassadors visit local schools to give talks about the European Union.
He had been asked by a student how to get more Singaporeans to be proficient in a foreign language.
Noting that there are different groups of "third languages", Mr Ong said learning a third language from a European country or the Japanese language "can give us access to good universities, jobs and therefore economic opportunities".
Regional languages is a second group of languages useful to Singaporeans, he added. "This represents opportunities for us in a small market like Singapore. At some point, Singaporeans may go out and operate in these markets," he said.
Another third language to learn is that spoken by fellow Singaporeans of other races, Mr Ong said.
Noting that there are different groups of "third languages", Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said learning a third language from a European country or the Japanese language "can give us access to good universities, jobs and therefore economic opportunities".
"So you can learn Chinese, Malay or Tamil. I find this is especially meaningful, because as a multicultural country, the more you know about the culture of another Singaporean in another community, the more you can draw closer," he said.
He cited Finland as an example, where the locals first learn Finnish as their first language followed by Swedish, as many Swedes reside in the country.
About 40 students from 21 schools attended the discussion at the Ministry of Education Language Centre in Bishan, where Mr Ong, EU Ambassador to Singapore Barbara Plinkert and ambassadors from Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Romania spoke about the importance of foreign languages in a globalised world.
The inaugural European Union Comes to Your School (EU@School) project aims to promote global awareness and cross-cultural skills among students.
"The EU is - just like Singapore - rich in diversity, multilingual and multifaceted," said Belgian Ambassador Andy Detaille.
He said the project will deepen the understanding between the peoples of Singapore and the EU.
The panellists were also asked about steps made by EU countries to encourage the learning of European languages in Asia, and how to learn words when the meaning may be lost in translation.
Responding to the latter question, Romanian Ambassador Florin Tacu said "there are simply some words that are fully untranslatable", despite translation technologies. He suggested immersing oneself in the culture of the respective country to better learn the language.