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Despite greater use of English, mother tongue languages still highly relevant: Language promotion councils

Despite greater use of English, mother tongue languages still highly relevant: Language promotion councils

File photo of a student reading a textbook. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: The growing dominance of English as the language most frequently spoken at home does not necessarily come at the expense of vernacular languages. Instead, it points to healthy levels of bilingualism, said language promotion councils. 

Census data released last week showed that English was the most used language at home for nearly half of all residents in 2020, up from about a third of residents a decade ago. 

The greater use of English was seen across all major ethnic groups, while the use of Mandarin, Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil lost ground. 

In 2020, almost half of all respondents said English was the language they used most frequently at home. (Graphic: Rafa Estrada)

Organisations that promote the main languages in Singapore told CNA that these findings are not a surprise, given that English is the lingua franca here.

“It really is a language with both practical and personal uses - practical because it is a language of administration and commerce, and personal because it is a language of cohesion that helps us understand and communicate with one another," said chairman of the Speak Good English Movement Jason Leow.

But while English has gained ground, the councils emphasised that vernacular languages are still highly relevant among the population.

Mr Chua Chim Kang, chairman of the Promote Mandarin Council, said the growing use of English does not have to come “at the expense of Mandarin or any other mother tongue language”.

“Mother tongue languages are very much alive and used in the different communities, for different purposes and in different settings,” he said.

READ: English gaining ground as the language most used at home: Census 2020

Anecdotal evidence shows that Mandarin continues to be used in many other recreational and social spaces outside the home, Mr Chua added.

In addition, census data found that among residents who spoke English the most at home, nearly nine in 10 also spoke a vernacular language in the same setting.

The Tamil Language Council’s chairman, Mr Manogaran Suppiah, called this is “a healthy outcome” for bilingualism – which has long been central to Singapore’s language policies.

Mr Leow from the Speak Good English Movement added: “This is reflective of our ability to code-switch, even as we are able to master several languages, including English. This is a skill we should take pride in and celebrate.”

READ: Commentary: Raising bilingual children is challenging but immensely rewarding

In particular, the data showed a high level of bilingualism among the Malay community, said Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim, chairman of the Malay Language Council.

Among Malay respondents who spoke English the most at home, more than nine in 10 said Malay was the next language they used the most.

This clearly shows that “the preferential usage of English does not signal a languish of the Malay language”, said Assoc Prof Faishal.

He added that the community continues to celebrate Malay culture, traditions and values, while Malay organisations champion the language.

“This community fervour and enthusiasm for the Malay language is unfortunately not captured by the census,” said Assoc Prof Faishal.


Nevertheless, the councils noted that more can be done, and said the findings will be useful in guiding their efforts at deepening appreciation for the languages.

The youth is a key group for the councils. Census data showed the use of English at home was generally more common among the younger population than those who are older.

“One important group that we have monitored, and will continue to do so, is those aged 19 and below, or our student population. We recognise that more should be done to encourage them to use our mother tongue languages," said Assoc Prof Faishal.

While several initiatives are already in place, he added that the council will remain open to new ideas and approaches to keep the community engaged.

READ: Commentary: The benefits of bilingualism go beyond knowing two languages

It was a view shared by Mr Manogaran of the Tamil Language Council, who said: “The (council) has long identified the need to strengthen its outreach to more youths … The data in the census now supports our sensing and approach.”

It has already implemented a slew of programmes targeting this group, because reaching them at a younger age would enable a longer-term goal of activating their support for the Tamil language, said Mr Manogaran.

He added that bilingualism policies in the education system already ensure that most Tamil students can read, write and speak the language, as evidenced by “the high passing rates in national examinations”.

“The real challenge is to help our students and youth to find the motivation to speak Tamil more actively when there is an opportunity once they have left the school system.”

READ: Indian salesman who speaks fluent Mandarin and Hokkien learned them from grandparents

Mr Chua said the Promote Mandarin Council will also look for new ways to cater to young Singaporeans, as needs and preferences change over time.

But in the meantime, he said the census data affirms the direction taken for its Speak Mandarin Campaign.

For example, the data showed that a large proportion of residents are aged between 35 and 54, which is a “parental phase in life”, said Mr Chua.

This means the council's campaign, which targets families, is headed in the right direction, he said, noting that a “record-breaking” number of more than a thousand families registered for one of the council’s talent competitions this year.


As the use of the English language grows more prevalent in Singapore, the Speak Good English Movement will continue promoting the value of standard English – which is different from Singlish or broken English, said Mr Leow. 

“Our role is to encourage everyone to continue being conscious of their language use, especially when we switch between so many different languages," he added.

"It is even more important now to pay a bit more attention to our English, just in case we mix up language patterns and structures."

For Mandarin, Mr Chua was bullish about the future relevance of the language: “The developments in the global economy has strengthened Mandarin’s relevance and pragmatic value. The thriving Chinese arts and entertainment scene has also rejuvenated interest in Mandarin.”

Moving forward, Assoc Prof Faishal said the Malay community will become increasingly bilingual, and he is optimistic they will “continue to cherish” the language.

“However, we are aware that we must persist in our efforts to create the right environment for its use, so that the Malay language can continue to maintain relevance in Singapore and this region," he added.

Mr Manogaran also noted that despite demographic changes and the growing dominance of English, Tamil continues to receive strong support in Singapore as an official language.

“The census does not measure our community’s enthusiasm for the language,” he said, adding that stakeholders must collaborate more effectively to promote Tamil.

Overall, the councils stressed that promoting vernacular languages must be a collective effort by families, government agencies, community groups and media partners, among others.

Source: CNA/cl(gs)


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