Within the short space of eight months, Singapore's founding Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, has done a nearly complete about-face in his attitude toward promoting the use of Mandarin in the republic. As late as March of this year, when he was celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the campaign to "Speak Mandarin," Lee was claiming that "In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue.”
In those days, Lee was asserting that people have only so many “gigabytes” in their brains to devote to languages. Though admitting that speaking “dialects” in some situations can provide “extra warmth,” he warned that, by using such languages, “You are losing important neurons with data which should not be there. And like the computer, when you delete it, it doesn’t really go away. It’s there at the back, and you’ve got to go to the rubbish channel and say ‘destroy.’ And it’s still disturbing your hard disk.” (See this useful summary and detailed list of references by Mark Swofford.)
Thus, those rubbish languages must be destroyed “dialects” must be let go, he intimated.
Lately, however, the Minister Mentor (MM) is singing a completely different tune. Here's one recent article with some delicious, pertinent quotes. Now Lee admits that:
his insistence on bilingualism in the early years of education policy was "wrong". Instead it has caused generations of students to be put off by the Chinese language [VHM: by which MM means, of course, Mandarin, not Hakka or Hokkien or Cantonese, etc.].
Speaking first in Mandarin and then in English at the official opening of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language on Tuesday, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave a blunt assessment of Singapore's bilingual policy.
He said: "We started the wrong way. We insisted on ting xie (listening), mo xie (dictation) — madness! We had teachers who were teaching in completely-Chinese schools. And they did not want to use any English to teach English-speaking children Chinese and that turned them off completely."
As a result of these overly forceful policies, students balked at learning Mandarin and flocked to English more enthusiastically than before.
MM Lee (who is of Hakka and Hokkien ancestry, though his best language appears to be English, and he has long struggled to acquire full fluency in Mandarin) goes on to advance some rather dubious ideas about sexual differences in language learning ability:
Mr Lee added: "At first I thought, you can master two languages. Maybe different intelligence, you master it at different levels."
But his conclusions now, after over 40 years of learning Mandarin, cannot be more different.
MM Lee said: "Nobody can master two languages at the same level. If (you think) you can, you're deceiving yourself. My daughter is a neurologist, and late in my life she told me language ability and intelligence are two different things.
"Girls are better at languages because their left side of the brain to learn languages [sic], as a general rule, is better than the boys. Boys have great difficulty, and I had great difficulty.
Shifts in Singaporean language policy are as changeable as the winds that blow across the harbor there. Regardless of what MM may be thinking at any given moment, we can be sure that the current status of English (far and away the main language), Malay, Mandarin, Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamil, Singlish, and the other languages spoken there will not remain static.