Bilingualism in Singapore

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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.


  1. Lazar said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    Mr Lee's earlier assertions do raise an interesting point: is there anything like a quanfitifable language capacity – i.e. a "budget" of available language space in an individual's brain which can be filled up with a given number of languages?

  2. Shii said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    The hard drive analogy is about as accurate as the genetic ("meme") analogy for ideas. The structure of the brain looks nothing like a hard drive and there's no evidence that it acts like one.

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    “You are losing important neurons with data which should not be there"

    How very Sherlock Holmes. Just like his exposition on how "a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic".

  4. Brett said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

    @Ray Girvan: To the extent that one can take the Sherlock Holmes stories to be internally consistent, it is clear that in that conversation (which occurs only just after Holmes and Watson meet), Holmes is teasing his new roommate. He is not actually unaware, for example, that the Earth goes around the sun.

  5. HP said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

    @Ray Girvan: Or perhaps even more apropos than Holmes, Simpson: "[E]very time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home wine-making course and I forgot how to drive?"

  6. Alex said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    Interesting coincidence: there was a repeat of the QI episode on Dave (UK tv channel) just a few hours ago, in which Singlish and similar English variants were discussed.

  7. Duna said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    What was also very interesting about Lee's previous stance on Mandarin (and the resulting 'Speak Mandarin' campaign) was how Mandarin was referred to, in all language policy, education, and campaign materials, as the 'mother tongue' of all students of Chinese descent – whether their actual first language is Mandarin, Hokkien, English, or anything else. Same thing for all Singaporeans of Indian descent – Tamil is the only 'mother tongue' – and Malays.

  8. Volte Face said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 12:55 am

    Which languages are officially recognized by the government, which languages are discouraged, which languages are taught in schools, and who can/must learn which languages – these are all core aspects of the country's language policy that have remained largely the same since independence. I wouldn't exactly describe that as "changeable as the winds".

    BTW, I don't know the source of the quotations, but I wouldn't translate 听写 (ting xie) as "listening"; the task is more akin to spelling – the teacher says a word and you have to write the correct character(s) for it. As for 默写 (mo xie), it's definitely not "dictation", since it involves memorizing a passage and writing it out; the point being that no one's dictating it. (This from someone who was subjected to both in school…)

  9. Zora said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    I learn languages fairly quickly and well, but my brain seems to operate on two channels — English and foreign — and a new foreign language bumps out the old one. I can still read French, but can't speak it. I rummage for vocabulary when speaking and all that comes up is Tongan. Just my idiosyncrasy, I'm sure.

  10. Uln said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    Isn't it precisely the opposite? It is because Mr. Li has been educated from childhood in one single language that he hadn't developped the ability to learn new languages?

    I was brought up bilingually in 2 completely different languages (Basque and Spanish), and since then I have always found it easy to learn foreign languages. Including mandarin, where I'm already novel reading level.

    Of course, I understand my single case cannot be taken as scientific proof, but I always tend to "feel" that the more languages you learn, the more you can learn. Is there any basis for this? .. Im off to search the llog.

  11. JREL said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 4:35 am

    @Duna: This has changed slightly in recent years. Although the label 'mother tongue' is still reserved exclusively for Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil, regardless of, let's say, native language(s), pupils (i.e. their parents) are now given more options on the language they can take as a 'mother tongue' at school. So an ethnic Indian who grew up speaking Malay at home can now take Mandarin as his/her 'mother tongue', notwithstanding the inappropriateness of that label. However, I am told that the default choice does still seem to be in line with the original race-MT association.

  12. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 5:25 am

    I'm struggling to work out what could be more important information (especially to someone in Singapore!) over the next 50 years than the ability to speak English and Chinese fluently.

    Anyway, I work with and went to school with a lot of bilingual (and some trilingual) people. There's a pretty straightforward correlation in my experience – people who were raised bilingual are roughly equally proficient in each language, though some feel they aren't as proficient as a monolingual speaker in either language (bear in mind we're all professional writers, so it's not exactly an obvious deficiency). Those who picked up the second/third language later in life tend to be stronger in their mother tongue, though for a handful of them you'd never notice the difference unless you were looking for it.

  13. marie-lucie said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 8:22 am

    the more languages you learn, the more you can learn

    Speaking personally and without having done or even consulted research on the subject, there seems to be more than one factor at work: keeping the relevant part(s) of your brain active, openness to new experiences, resemblances between the languages you learn (as well as with your own), and the fact that people who learn several languages are those who are good at language learning to begin with.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    @Uln — I'd think that learning Basque as a child generates a whole bunch of neurons that makes any subsequent language seem easy.

    We had a good discussion here some months ago on the observation that many of us polyglots find our languages arranged in geological layers. For me Spanish lies down below the German and Swedish strata and it takes me several days of immersion before I gain direct access to Spanish, without having to think first in Swedish or German. The process is very clear in my head, but there's nothing I can do to short-circuit it at first and I'm sometimes embarrassed by what comes out of my mouth on the spur of the moment.

  15. Catanea said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    people who learn several languages are those who are good at language learning to begin with

    but, Marie-Lucie, little children have no choice, how can they be somehow "selected" as being good at language learning?

    Maybe people whose situation in life calls upon them to use several languages as children develop…no…prime? boot up, I think is the phrase I want to use, an ability latent in all humans. So that really, the more you learn the more you can learn…

    I hope more people will submit anecdotal and – why not? – genuine data.

  16. ronbo said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    @JREL: I hope that is true. About 10 years ago I met a Peranakan woman who told me she had all sorts of problems in school because she was "classified" as having Chinese as her mother tongue despite not growing up in a Chinese-speaking home.

    I also recall being told (by someone in government) that the rationale for making English the lingua franca of Singapore at independence was to avoid seeming to prefer one ethnic group over another, an issue of no small concern in the mid-60s. When did the official policy change? For that matter (as evidence of how out of touch I am with Singapore these days) when did LKY become Minister Mentor instead of Senior Minister?

  17. dwmacg said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

    I've heard that early bilingualism makes later language learning easier, because bilingual children learn early on the abstract nature of words (and presumably grammatical constructions), but right now I can't find any references to that work. But this article summarizes some of the cognitive benefits of early bilingualism. In brief: bilinguals have "advanced cognitive functioning in the area of executive function and self-control"; "bilingual children were better able [than monolinguals] to inhibit competing meanings in a related task and thus were better able to learn words with closely overlapping meanings"; and "learning new ideas in one language may benefit understanding of the idea even when the idea is presented in another language."

  18. dwmacg said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    More anecdotally, I've experienced the English/foreign dichotomy that Zora mentions. At one point in my life it was Turkish that occupied the foreign slot, but now it's Spanish. And I sometimes find Spanish intruding on my English (e.g., by using anda as an expression of surprise).

    But then again, code switching is a good sign.

  19. Cameron said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    When I was in Singapore a few years ago I heard from several people that the language policy was a real burden to people who were classified as having Chinese (Mandarin) as their "mother tongue". The main point of contention was that written fluency in the mother tongue is one of the criteria for entrance to the country's elite universities. And while the Singapore Chinese generally learn to speak Mandarin pretty well (though with a distinctive accent) reading and writing is a different thing altogether. The younger generation look at the Chinese characters purely as an obstacle they have to overcome to get into one of the top colleges. And if the mother tongue requirements represent too great a challenge, they look to colleges abroad: US, Canada, Australia, etc.

    The general attitude I got was that the language policy is actually discriminatory against the ethnic Chinese, since written mastery of Malay or Tamil poses much less of a challenge than the Chinese characters. Perhaps this policy also serves as a de facto affirmative action program to ensure that Malay and Tamil speakers are well represented at the top Singaporean universities . . .

  20. JJM said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    [E]very time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?"

    – Homer Simpson

  21. Nick Lamb said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    “He is not actually unaware, for example, that the Earth goes around the sun.”

    Holmes or Watson would have an excuse because the stories are set prior to the popularisation of Einstein's theories. But we have no such excuse. There is no privileged reference frame, the luminiferous aether does not exist. As people stood on the surface of the Earth, if anything we should prefer our local frame in which the Sun goes around the Earth.

    This popular mistake (thinking that Copernicus was right!) is just as bad as the poor tortured phrase "passive tense" that Language Log writers sometimes moan about.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

    Not to get off-topic, but in Einstein's relativity only non-accelerated reference frames are equally valid. The earth accelerates because it goes around the sun. (Acceleration in physics arises from change in direction as well as change in speed.) The sun accelerates because it goes around the center of the galaxy, but much less than the earth does. So though normally we prefer our local frame and ignore the small accelerations of the earth's motion, I'd say it's quite reasonable to talk about the earth "really" going around the sun, but not vice-versa.

  23. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

    I have learnt, at various times, for various reasons, and to various levels of proficiency, French and German (at school and university), Russian (in the army), Maori (just for interest, and because I now live in NZ), and Spanish and Turkish (for three visits to Mexico and one to Turkey). I am fluent in none of them, and am most competent in French and Spanish, in which I still have some speaking as well as reading knowledge; but the two I found most interesting to study, because they aren't Indo-European, were Maori and Turkish. It's quite a revelation to study a language where a verb has only two forms, active or passive, and sometimes only one (just active), and in which finite verbs are usually preceded by TAMs (tense, aspect, and mood markers). That's Maori. And Turkish, of course, is an agglutinative language, so in "Lütfen ellerinizi yıkayınız", which means "Please wash your hands", ellerinizi is both the plural of "el" (eller) and has a suffix meaning "your". But I don't think any new language I've learnt has driven out an older one, though I do remember saying "Si" when I meant "Oui" in Paris once.

  24. Liz Peña said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    I wonder if the feeling that one language is "driven out" is actually competition between languages especially during word selection. There's no evidence however that bilingualism itself is problematic although of course bilinguals may demonstrate different language patterns in each langauge compared to monolinguals. I tend to see these as trade-offs, monolinguals may be faster at processing language for example, but bilinguals might show more cognitive flexibility (which could translate into being able to learn additional languages).

  25. JREL said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 2:04 am

    @ronbo: Not sure exactly when it changed, but the Singaporean teachers I know tell me it's not that old. I think you still have to expressly ask for a different L2 than 'your mother tongue', otherwise the default one applies. Others will know more about this than me.

    LKY became SM when he stepped down as PM, and became MM when the Lee Jr became PM, since the SM post then went to Goh. Don't forget that in fifty years of self-rule, Singapore has had just three PMs. I wonder what new post they'll think of when the 4th PM is sworn in.

  26. Joseph Dart said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 4:54 am

    @Cameron: "The general attitude I got was that the language policy is actually discriminatory against the ethnic Chinese, since written mastery of Malay or Tamil poses much less of a challenge than the Chinese characters."

    Perhaps I'm too judgmental, but this strikes me as pure ethnocentric whining on the part of your interlocutors. Attaining a high level of literacy in Tamil is quite hard, for reasons both extrinsic (low availability of Tamil reading material in Singapore as compared to Chinese reading material, low employment benefit for being able to read Tamil fluently) and intrinsic (diglossia, letters changing into unrecognisable shapes when combined, lack of voiced-unvoiced distinction in the script, etc.). And Tamil grammar itself, whether in the written or spoken language, makes any Sinitic language look like a piece of cake. There are other things that can make a language hard besides having to memorise thousands of characters.

  27. Reinier Post said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    What I miss in Minister Lee's assessment, and he is not alone here, is attention to the parents'/teachers' language proficiency. As far as I'm aware (but I'm not in the linguistics field), very young children are best addressed in a language the other person speaks fluently, even if this means they have to learn multiple languages at once – it's far worse for their development to be addressed in a single language that their caretakers don't really master. Similarly, in school, students are probably quicker to pick up languages than teachers – so it may make sense to teach in multiple languages for that reason alone.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

    From a Singaporean friend:


    As for the new MM opinions on the Bilingual policy, I can only say that this will likely be an issue that will arise every few years. I'm not sure how much truth there is in his new opinions, but having taught Mandarin for three years at a traditional-Chinese high school, I have to say that for students to be truly bilingual, they must first have a bilingual home environment. Five lessons of mandarin per week just cannot do it. I've witnessed too many students that do well in every single subject except Mandarin. This bilingual issue will likely be a permanent thorny issue for Singapore.

  29. Antonio said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    Hi! I wonder if you have ever tried Chinoesfera
    My name is Antonio, I'm mexican and I started to learn chinese 5 months ago. One day, they told me that address in the Chinese Embassy in my country and I checked it out, as it was kind of oficial…
    incredible.. If you speak spanish, it's the perfect resource, and it's totally free!! I wanted to let you know, bye!

  30. Saim Dusan Inayatullah said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    I have encountered language confusion as well, as I grew up bilingually with Serbo-Croatian and English. I've noticed that when I speak Serbo-Croatian I have a lot of difficulty and I instinctively want to use Spanish words. However, this is probably just because I actually study Spanish in my free time while I hardly ever use Serbo-Croatian anymore. Perhaps if I want to maintain my Serbo-Croatian proficiency, I'll need to study it as a foreign language (and consistently, as well – I've done lessons with my Serbian mother before but we always end up stopping so the benefits are not as great as they could be).

  31. Saim Dusan Inayatullah said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    I'd also like to note that I'm not experiencing any confusion between Spanish and Urdu, another one of my heritage languages but one which I've only started learning recently (at the age of 16) having not spoken it at a young age.

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