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Singapore: Where Languages Compete With One Another

August 28, 2017
Plain English Version

Sign in Singapore.

Singapore became a nation in 1965. The Prime Minister was Lee Kuan Yew. He spoke English. He rarely spoke Mandarin. He thought a person could master only one language.

Singapore is more than a thousand miles away from China. The ethnic Chinese make up 75 percent of the population. Most spoke Hokkien and Guandong dialects. About 7 percent of the people of Singapore came from southern India. Most spoke Tamil. Another 15 percent spoke Malay. Neither Mandarin nor English was the common language.

The government tells the people of Singapore what languages to speak.

In the late 1970s, Singapore leaders banned Chinese dialects.The government launched a “Speak Mandarin” campaign. In some schools, teachers disciplined pupils who spoke dialects. Leaders told the population that dialect speakers had no future. Soon, broadcasts of dialects went off the air.

A few years later, the government changed its mind. It ordered the people to speak English. English became the main language in all schools in 1987. The idea was to create unity among the three major ethnic groups. Today, almost all instruction is in English.

There are also language classes in the student’s native tongue. For Indians and Malays, the classes are in Tamil and Malay. For ethnic Chinese, the classes are in Mandarin.

An expert said Singapore used to be like a language rain forest. Like a rain forest, it was overgrown, and a bit chaotic. But it was vibrant and thriving.

Now Singapore has had decades of pruning and cutting. It has become a garden focused on cash crops. You learn English or Mandarin to get ahead. Other languages are not important. The language rain forest has been cut down by these changes.

Today, the people of Singapore are asking for more of the old ways. As a result, the government is softening its stance on language choice.

Times are changing. Long-time Prime Minister Lee died in 2015. The Singapore government is easing its language rules. Some people are defending “Singlish.” It is a local patois of English, Chinese dialects, and Malay.

More and more people are learning their ancestral language. Dialect broadcasts are back on the air.

People around the world are reaching for their past. Singapore is becoming something of a case study in the recovery of native cultures.

Source: The New York Times August 26, 2017

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