BYE lingual?: ACJC ELL Symposium 2017

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By Abigail Ang (18S06B), Soh Gek Shuen (18S03B) and Soh Ying Qi (18A01C), photo credit to Sng Hong (18A01C) 

Why did Lee Kuan Yew call English “emotionally unacceptable” as a mother tongue? How do ideologies and political motives affect language policy? And could Singapore ever adopt an “open” bilingualism policy, where students could study any second language, not just their “mother tongue”?

These were some questions posed at the annual English Language and Linguistics Symposium, held last Saturday at Anglo-Chinese Junior College (ACJC), in line with this year’s theme: “Language, Power and Ideology”.

In the first talk, Singapore’s Language Policy: Rationales and Challenges, Dr Lionel Wee, Vice Dean of Research at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS), analysed the assumptions on which the government first based Singapore’s language policy, and the possible changes to language policy as these assumptions are challenged or become outdated.

For instance, in 1972, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew claimed that English was “emotionally unacceptable” as a mother tongue as Singaporeans could never have the same cultural or emotional attachment to English as the language spoken by their ethnic groups. This was in the era when English was mostly learnt for pragmatic reasons only, such as to communicate between ethnic groups, and to access Western science and technology.

However, as Mr Wee emphasised, languages are dynamic entities and their relationships to their speakers are constantly changing. As the use of mother tongues in households continues to fall, one may argue that Singaporeans have a stronger connection to English than any other language. Just compare the number of Chinese students in Singapore taking English literature as compared to its Chinese counterpart.

Emotionally unacceptable?

The current bilingualism policy is also not without its problems, as it excludes groups outside the “CMI” (Chinese-Malay-Indian) model. For example, Non-Tamil Indian students were only given the option to take Non-Tamil Indian Languages (NTILs) as mother tongue subjects after 1989, and the current list still excludes some languages like Malayalam. Students of mixed-races used to have to take the “mother tongue” affiliated to their father’s ethnic group, and since English cannot be taken as a mother tongue subject, many Eurasians take up a language they have little to no affiliation with —simply to fulfill the bilingualism criteria.

This means that for many, the language taken as a mother tongue subject is often arbitrary. This problem is even more keenly felt now as Singapore welcomes more people of different nationalities and ethnicities, as their actual Mother Tongues may not even be offered as unofficial languages (e.g. Vietnamese and Filipino).

Another trend that may cause the current bilingualism policy to be unsustainable is China’s economic growth; if Mandarin also has economic value, it would be unfair to reserve it only for Chinese Singaporeans.

One possible, though perhaps controversial, solution would be adopting a more flexible system in which students simply pick up a language of their choice, in addition to English. This would recognise the diversity of mother tongues in Singapore, beyond the rigid allocation of mother tongues based on ethnic identity.

The  discussion about Singapore’s independence-era language policy segued nicely into the second talk by Dr Bruce Lockhart, Associate Professor in the Department of History at NUS, titled Colonial Languages and Language Policy in Decolonised Southeast Asia: A Historical Overview, which provided a historical perspective to language policy in Southeast Asia.

Dr Lockhart highlighted one of the main points made by both himself and Dr Wee: “language is always about power.” Historically, the languages of Southeast Asian colonists were considered more prestigious than the local vernaculars, and were viewed as a way for locals to climb up the social ladder. Hence, English-language schools like RI and Anglo-Chinese were popular.

As an interesting side note, Dr Lockhart added that “Raffles and Anglo-Chinese represent the two different traditions in Singapore…the AC system represents the mission school tradition, Raffles represents the self-consciously secular tradition.”

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ACJC plays religious music before their assemblies; RI, Top 40 pop.

Colonisation not only introduced competition from colonial languages, but from other local languages as well. Christian missionaries helped modernise and spread local minority languages; as Dr Lockhart explained, “If they come in and the Bible is not available in the local language, they will do translation of the Bible into that language, and very often they have to create script.”

Writing systems allowed minority languages to compete with major regional languages. However, this created tension between speakers, which had far-reaching ramifications for Southeast Asian countries after independence.

With the topic of language policy and education relevant to all students present, their interest was palpable from their enthusiastic participation during the Q and A session. One student asked whether an “open” bilingualism policy would result in more people identifying with other cultures, and even taking it to a level some may find offensive.

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Q&A session with Dr Lionel Wee and Dr Bruce Lockhart

Though the student stopped shy of using the term “cultural appropriation”, murmurs rippled through the crowd as the audience recognised that students may abandon their mother tongue not just for economic reasons, but for a different culture and even nationality.

The idea that one need not know one’s “native” language to “truly” be a person of that ethnicity may also seem radical to some, especially if they have grown up hearing such sentiments from parents or teachers. When approached after the talk, however, Dr Lockhart emphasised that one’s language ability did not affect one’s attachment to the ethnic identity they held, citing Asian-Americans as an example of an immigrant culture maintaining their cultural identity.

One could argue that one’s attachment to the culture of your ethnic group or nationality is not so much dependent on the language one speaks, but the effort one puts into maintaining one’s relationship to the culture. A case in point: many pioneer-generation Singaporeans have a second language different from the one typically associated with their ethnic group, such as Malay instead of Chinese, due to societal circumstances. Yet, one would hardly say they are any less Singaporean.

The event certainly provided much food for thought, and ground sentiments regarding the talks were largely positive. Nurul ‘Afaf bte Badrolhisham (18A01C) praised the symposium’s interdisciplinary nature, saying, “The fact that they managed to link other subjects such as history into ELL made it an even more enriching experience.”


Click here to access the slides used in the symposium, and here for a transcript of both lectures.

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