Fluent bilingualism in Singapore

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[This is a guest post by an anonymous correspondent in East Asia.]

I thought you might be interested in taking on the ignorance of remarks earlier today by Singapore's minister of education. He's headed toward "like, wow" territory.

Basically, he was speaking about Singapore expanding a program aimed at reinvigorating the learning of what it calls "mother-tongue languages," which are the main languages of Singapore other than English — even though English is increasingly the mother tongue of citizens there.

I believe, however, that Singapore will continue to fail to achieve widespread fluent bilingualism for native speakers of English until it moves the focus for young students of Mandarin from Chinese characters to Hanyu Pinyin (with, and this is important, interesting texts written in orthographically correct Hanyu Pinyin). Later, students who wish to specialize in Mandarin can be taught to read Hanzi, with very little time devoted to writing Hanzi by hand. Meanwhile, other students can continue to expand their fluency in Mandarin through Hanyu Pinyin. Singapore has the resources to make this a reality; but its leaders lack the basic understanding to do so.

For example, Singapore's minister of education, Ong Ye Kung, was quoted as saying earlier today, "I have always felt that English is like an algorithm – efficient, analytical and very logical. But Chinese is based on logograms, and is much more holistic and historical. By learning both languages at the same time, it has profoundly shaped the way I think, analyse and approach problems, and even the way I look at life."


"MOE expands 2-year programme in literature and mother tongue languages to more schools", Amelia Teng, The Straits Times (5/28/10)


  1. the50person said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 9:13 am

    However, there is an issue with your suggestion: this is like saying that you should teach Japanese using mostly romaji, which is obviously not the way you should go about doing it. In addition, Mandarin Chinese has way more homophones, making it even less practical. In fact, it may end up confusing the child more seeing so many different 'ma' but not knowing which 'ma' it is talking about without relying too much on context, possibly resulting in more effortful reading. I don't see how focusing overly on Hanyu Pinyin in the manner that the writer has suggested will help "to achieve widespread fluent bilingualism for native speakers of English".

    In addition, what does "fluent bilingualism" mean? Fluency in terms of what? Reading? Writing? Both? How fluent is fluent, and based on what (what is the measurement you're using), and versus who, or anyone at all?

    Perhaps it has also something to do with the language attitudes that the children are having, and that their parents are displaying? Many Singaporean friends of mine simply didn't have the environment and hence failed to see its importance and appreciate the language. Coupled with poorer grades and embarrassment of their poor command due to lack of regular practice and exposure outside of the classroom, it fuelled their dislike of the language and it became a vicious cycle.

    I think this topic is actually much more complicated, involving things from government policy, history of Singapore's linguistic landscape, language attitudes (related to language policies), home languages, socio-economic status etc, to psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics (even research on placement and format of hanyu pinyin relative to Chinese words in a text, and whether hanyu pinyin or the Chinese character should be shown to the child first).

    I think Francesco Cavallaro, Ng Bee Chin, Tan Yingying and Xie Wenhan should have some research on stuff like this.

    To share some readings:

    Attitudes towards Mandarin–English bilingualism:
    a study of Chinese youths in Singapore by Francesco Cavallaro and Xie Wenhan: http://www3.ntu.edu.sg/home/cfcavallaro/Pdf%20files/2016%20Xie%20and%20Cavallaro%20Attitudes%20towards%20Mandarin%E2%80%93English%20bilingualism.pdf

    Attitudes to Mandarin Chinese varieties in Singapore: https://repository.nie.edu.sg/bitstream/10497/20183/1/JAPC-28-2-195.pdf

    A Study of Attitudes towards the Speak Mandarin Campaign
    in Singapore: https://web.uri.edu/iaics/files/NG-Chin-Leong.pdf

    The language attitudes of bilingual youth in multilingual Singapore: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01434630802510121

    English as a ‘mother tongue’ in Singapore by Tan Yingying: https://www.academia.edu/9965163/English_as_a_mother_tongue_in_Singapore

    The Influence of the Pinyin and Zhuyin Writing Systems on the Acquisition of Mandarin Word Forms by Native English Speakers: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00785/full

    Writing strengthens orthography and alphabetic-coding strengthens phonology in learning to read Chinese: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0023730

    Neuroanatomical Correlates of Phonological Processing of Chinese Characters and
    Alphabetic Words: A Meta-Analysis (2005)

    Apologies if I'm blabbering and don't make much sense.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    "Apologies if I'm blabbering and don't make much sense."

    You haven't come to grips with the thrust of the o.p.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 9:37 am

    From an anonymous correspondent in Singapore:

    That the education minister for Singapore is clueless is no surprise for those of us in Singapore.

    One thing to note is how very patchy the language map is in Singapore. On limited and anecdotal experience I find a non-significant group of Singapore young speak no language well or perhaps that should be they speak numerous languages all badly. They are "fluent" in Singlish perhaps but their Chinese, English or Malay is littered with borrowed words from the other languages. Some are able to cleanly switch from the local mixed patois into an international level of English or Chinese but other remain in a local patois rut.

  4. Jamie said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 9:53 am

    @the50person " this is like saying that you should teach Japanese using mostly romaji, which is obviously not the way you should go about doing it"

    Teaching Japanese using romaji and/or kana is a perfectly reasonable approach (to the spoken language). Insisting that people learn kanji at the same time as the (spoken) language will just slow their learning of the language.

    There are also advantages to the use of romaji. For example, it makes conjugations of verbs more obvious, where the initial consonant of a syllable stays the same but the vowel changes.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 10:06 am

    Bravo, Jamie! That's smart, clear reasoning.

    @the50person (does that mean you're a 50 center?):

    "you should teach Japanese using mostly romaji"

    That's exactly what Eleanor Jorden, the highly successful doyenne of Japanese language teachers used to do.

    "How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)

    "Beyond fluff" (3/19/17) — esp. this comment

    "Learning languages is so much easier now" (8/18/17) — esp. this comment

    "How to learn Mandarin" (7/17/18)

    "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/25/08) — esp. this comment

    "Spelling mistakes in English and miswritten characters in Chinese" (12/18/12) — esp. this comment

    "what does 'fluent bilingualism' mean"

    That's spelled out in the o.p. Read it.

    "Mandarin Chinese has way more homophones"

    "Homographobia" (9/27/10) — thanks be to John DeFrancis

    "Homophonophobia" (2/7/15) — esp. the penultimate paragraph of this comment

  6. Paul said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 10:13 am

    Singaporean here:

    I asked around a few friends who are fluent in both English and Mandarin (though moreso in the former than the latter) but who have little knowledge of linguistics for their thoughts on the minister's statement, and the consensus seemed to be that it's at least somewhat true. I wonder if there's anything in the way Singapore teaches these languages that gives that impression…?

  7. sgean said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 11:11 am

    There seems to be an implicit assumption that pinyin is a good representation of Mandarin as spoken in Singapore. Is this a good assumption to make?

    "Fluent bilingualism" — being able to speak, but not necessarily to read and write — seems like a really low bar to set in the multilingual and multicultural environment that is Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia. I think this is partly a philosophical problem: should people be OK with just being functionally multilingual, or should people be more "ambitious"?

    Probably because there's way more explicit instruction about grammar in English than in Chinese. So there's the impression that you have to analyze sentences and apply rules to them.

  8. Ellen K. said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 12:05 pm

    I understand the idea in the original post of using Hanyu Pinyin in learning Mandarin to be that, for some students at least, written materials can be a valuable aid in learning a spoken language, but that does depend on the writing system, and Hanyu Pinyin is much better suited to that than Chinese Characters, which would I think for most everyone be more of a distraction than an aid in learning to speak Mandarin.

  9. Neil Kubler said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

    The Chinese language learning situation for most ethnic Chinese in Singapore is neither L1 (Chinese as first language, as in China) nor L2 (Chinese as second language, as in China) but rather something in between, sometimes described as L1.5. Especially for the younger generation, English is dominant; the general direction of Chinese in S'pore is moving from L1.5 toward L2. This is probably inevitable, no matter what the government and schools do, given that English is used almost exclusively as the language of the government and the work place — plus the crucial need to respect the mother tongues and cultures of the other major ethnicities in Singapore, the Malays and the Indians. As regards the learning of Chinese, the anonymous correspondent is correct that Hanyu Pinyin should be given greater emphasis at the initial stages of reading and writing and that a greater effort should be made to locate or create "important, interesting texts." So contrary to the views of many conservative, traditional Singaporean educators (and teachers who have been brought in from China and Taiwan), there should be lots of texts all in Pinyin, written as a language, not as a transcription for characters (pengyou NOT peng you). However, the correspondent mentions only TEXTS; it is not texts but SPEECH that must have the greatest emphasis, since written language is based on spoken language. The overall tone of the post is also a little unfair to the government and thousands of dedicated Chinese language teachers in Singapore who have been making concerted and moderately successful efforts to teach Chinese to citizens of ethnic Chinese background, including adopting the most modern teaching methods, effectively using educational technology, and engaging hundreds of advisors from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, North America, and Europe. If it weren't for these efforts, the position of Chinese in Singapore would be even more precarious than it already is. Yes, political leaders there don't have a consistently accurate, scientific understanding of how the Chinese language (writing system included) really works, but in my work there as advisor for 10+ years, I have found they actually understand more about language than political leaders in many other countries; and, without a doubt, Singaporeans overall have better basic communicative skills in more languages than citizens of most countries.

  10. cameron said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 1:43 pm

    When I visited Singapore about 15 years ago, the impression I got, from speaking with locals, was that the requirement that ethnic Chinese people should display mastery of written Mandarin as part of their university entrance requirements was essentially a form of "affirmative action" – the end result is that university admission becomes much easier for ethnic Malays and Tamils than for Chinese.

  11. unekdoud said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

    Also Singaporean here:

    One pretty obvious aspect of the "algorithm" statement is that a large majority of science instruction and higher education is in English, to the point that most students would not know technical terms in any other language. I literally would not be able to describe an algorithm in written or spoken Chinese.

    sgean's hypothesis about grammar instruction is contrary to my experience in learning primary school Chinese, which included countless hours of working through questions about word order and usage. Most of the rules weren't spelled out, but they were learned by example. (Notice rote learning entering the picture of Chinese education once again.)

    Also regarding sgean's doubt about pinyin being an accurate representation of spoken Chinese: One obvious case is place names that don't originate from Mandarin. Adding Pinyin to the Chinese versions would not produce the common pronunciation!

    I take some offense to the anonymous comment of "local patois rut" as opposed to the supposed "international level of English or Chinese". The differences between Singlish/Chinese spoken in Singapore and elsewhere are well-documented, and include code-switching as an important component.

    Arguably, this means that we're not fluent in either English or Chinese alone, but by some definition it is both fluent and bilingual. Achieving true fluent bilingualism (with any second language) is a lofty goal, and if it's for pursuit of the cultural/economic advantages mentioned in the article I think it's not surprising that leaders are keeping a traditionalist tack rather than pushing for a Pinyin-based reform.

  12. Eidolon said,

    May 28, 2019 @ 6:10 pm

    As far as I know, English is the universal language of instruction in Singapore. As long as this is the case, I doubt the country can ever obtain stable bilingualism. Mandatory language classes in primary and secondary schools are not sufficient to hold onto a "mother tongue," not the least because they tend to cease in tertiary education and employment, and so become neglected in the long term. This long term effect matters because it affects the eventual home language of parents, which decides what *is* the "mother tongue."

    Generally speaking, if the goal is stable bilingualism, the language that is expected to be harder to maintain in the long term should be the language of instruction. In Singapore's case, this would imply educating the various groups that make up Singapore in their "mother tongue" and then having them learn English as a secondary language. Otherwise, English's eventual dominance is assured.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 1:22 am

    I question the term "local patois rut." Is not Singlish a full-fledged dialect of English just as African American Vernacular English? It's the local language and fully valid.

  14. Katelyn said,

    May 29, 2019 @ 7:16 am

    From the little examples that I've seen on Wikipedia, Singlish (Colloquial Singaporean English) seems to be very much like Standard Average Chinese. Perhaps, if Singlish rises up as a prestige dialect by government support, and the people actually learn Standardized Singlish in the classroom, then that may make it easier to learn Mandarin Chinese as well.

    Singlish: Dis country weather very hot one.
    Chinese: 这国家天气很热。or 天气好热啊!

    Singlish: No good lah.
    Chinese: 不好啦。

    Singlish: I like badminton, dat's why I every weekend go play.
    Chinese: 因为我喜欢打羽毛球,所以每个周末出去打。

  15. Guy_H said,

    May 30, 2019 @ 12:16 am

    Most of Singaporean/Malaysian friends speak (and read) Chinese very fluently and are usually conversational in another dialect or two (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc).

    However perhaps they are a rarity. I saw some recent videos on Youtube and I was honestly shocked at the general state of the language in Singapore:

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