Mandarin, Malay and Tamil: in Singapore, these are considered the official “mother tongue” languages. However, as the languages spoken at home change over the years, so too have children’s “real” mother tongue. Though these languages are cherished for their ethnic heritage, this may not be enough to save them against a gradual loss of prestige in the face of the growing influence of English. So, the big question is: What can we do about it?
The Case for Mandarin
In 2004, the Chinese Language Curriculum and Pedagogy Review Committee (CLCPRC) found that the use of English as the primary home language among Chinese Singaporeans is now equal to and will soon surpass that of Mandarin. The committee concluded that there are now two major distinct groups of Chinese Singaporean children, with very different home language backgrounds, now learning Mandarin in schools:
- those from English-speaking families (ESF), and
- those from Chinese-speaking families (CSF).
This comes as no great surprise to many Mandarin teachers in Singapore who have seen the growing use of English among Chinese Singaporeans at home. But this does raise the question of exactly how different these two groups of children are with regard to their oral Mandarin competence.
The Corpus: Language in Real Life
This is where the Singapore Preschoolers’ Mandarin Chinese Corpus comes in.
Using this corpus, lists of Mandarin words spoken by Chinese Singaporean preschoolers have been generated. The corpus has helped us find out:
- what preschoolers like to say,
- when they say it, and
- how they say it.
This data can then be used:
- as a reference for the Curriculum Planning and Development Division when they further develop the Chinese language curriculum, textbooks and pedagogy for primary schools.
- to devise a means for measuring children’s linguistic proficiency in order to help determine which module they should join ( CLCPRC’s recommends that a modular approach to language learning be used to accommodate the students’ linguistic backgrounds).
- to highlight the implications for Chinese language classroom pedagogy and teacher education programmes.
What Can Teachers Do about It
Furthermore, language is not a zero sum game. A decline in the use of Mandarin will not automatically lead to an improvement in Chinese Singaporean children’s use of English. In the study, it was revealed that most parents who claimed to interact in English with their children at home are, by their own admission, not very good English speakers.
This discrepancy between the actual proficiency of these parents’ spoken English and their desire to introduce English to their children in daily communication would result inevitably in them using Singlish or a mixture of English and Mandarin.
The end result is that the growing influence of English and its use (in a non-standard form) as a home language among Chinese Singaporeans is posing major problems for both English and Mandarin. It:
- hinders children’s acquisition of Standard English, which then effects their learning in all other subjects taught in English in school, and
- prevents them from fully developing their Mandarin competence and appreciating the wealth of cultural knowledge that the language embodies.
The Good News
But all is not lost. This study has also found that there appears to be a continuum of Mandarin competence among preschoolers, rather than a marked distinction between the groups.
This means that in a bilingual and multicultural society like Singapore, as Xu and Li (2003, p. 152) so aptly describe, there are still “more bilinguals than monolinguals”.
Therefore, a mother tongue language, like Mandarin, will never truly die out. But if it is to play a bigger role in Singapore’s language landscape, then its prestige and value must be increased and actively promoted – whether in school or at home.
And, to help our students improve their language competence – whether in English or in Mandarin – we teachers must constantly set the standard which we hope they will follow. Standard English is a must if we hope to combat the use of non-standard varieties of English at home.
Xu, D. M. and Li, W. (2003). Linguistic dirigisme and language management in Singapore. In P. M. Ryan & R. Terborg (Eds.), Language: Issues of Inequality (pp. 122-154). Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico.