Perception of Mother Tongue in Singapore (and why it can be limiting)

The Mother Tongue has always occupied an awkward position in Singaporean society. A simple search on the official Ministry of Education’s (MOE) website leads to an expectedly idealistic dictum: “The learning of Mother Tongue Language (MTL) is a lifelong endeavour. The MTL policy seeks to nurture our students to become effective communicators in MTL and supports our students to study MTL to as high a level as possible.”

At the same time, however, with different races in Singapore, the English language asserts its dominance as a common ground to facilitate communication. Easily observable on a societal level, English — as a language, and as a medium — take an easy spotlight, especially among the younger Singaporeans.

The sidelining of Mother Tongue Languages seem inevitable over time. Consequently, the diversity of culture and meanings that come with embracing different languages will invariably be lost.

Ironically, I realised this through experiences abroad. I came across people who neither have Mandarin as their mother tongue, nor preconceived notions on what it is about. These people tended to see Mandarin as a language that — like other languages — comes with its own set of unique expressions and strengths. As a result, they were more open to discovering what this foreign language has to offer that mainstream English does not.

For the first time, I felt that I could share my interest in both languages freely without feeling like I had to choose between them, and they would both be well received.

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In the latest attempt to push for Mother Tongue Languages, 23 new proposals by MOE — ranging from singing competitions to rhyme books, were supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism in 2017 alone. Despite the heavy investment, I doubt these policies will have a strong impact on the way Mother Tongue Languages are received in the long run. The efforts to make Mother Tongue fun seem superficial. Coupled with the fact that they come directly from the government, it is likely that they perceived as contrived and off-putting to the intended audiences.

How do Singaporeans view their own mother tongue, and what has contributed to their perceptions? 30 people from the general public share their unfiltered views on their own mother tongue in a survey. Most of the respondents have Mandarin as their Mother Tongue Language, and while their proficiency for mother tongue varies, their proficiency for English is generally much higher.

When asked whether mother tongue is less relevant in today’s society, a little less than 40% answered yes. The reasons cited are mainly pragmatic, such as “In a Singaporean context, as the ‘bridging’ and the working language is English, I see no need for knowing how to speak one’s mother tongue” and “English is the main language used in work and to communicate with other races”.

Interestingly, only 16.7% of the respondents view Mother Tongue Languages negatively. On the reasons for their positions, the answers reflected various conflicting attitudes.

For instance, one respondent explained that he used to hate his mother tongue until he realised the hatred was towards the education system rather than the language itself. Another puts it eloquently, “I find mandarin can be sophisticated and poetic at times. However, I do observe many people — especially peers in secondary school — being negative about it. Unconsciously their attitude influences me too. But generally, I do appreciate my own mother tongue.”

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Another respondent revealed that while he grew up enjoying mother tongue — thanks to his grandmother — his primary school adversely shifted his perspective on the language. In these responses, one can gather that Singaporeans’ relationship with their Mother Tongue Language is complicated and how they feel about it tends to fluctuate based on personal experience. Also, it seems that school is a common denominator in causing rather than alleviating the unfavourable opinions.

The responses to whether English is an inherently better language than their mother tongue were more polarised. The votes were nearly split in half, with 56.7% responding no. The side that responded no generally provides reasons like no language is superior to another as each has its “cultural uniqueness”, with one even labelling such comparison as an “imperialist” mindset. On the other hand, those who see English as inherently better tend to claim that it is easier to learn and that it is more viable for communication worldwide.

School and family are cited as the greatest influence on how the respondents perceive their mother tongue, followed by society at large, peers and the media. The consumption of media in their mother tongue is collectively low, with only 23.3% stating they consume it often, while 46.7% respond with rarely.

As school is a frequently mentioned factor in shaping mother tongue perception, students and young working adults are then asked for their candid thoughts on their mother tongue education. The responses are revealing, with many shared sentiments among both the current and former students.

On the contentious subject regarding the effectiveness of the Mother Tongue Language curriculum, Jinyi, 23, who took Chinese lessons, states that while the texts are effective exam tools, the language used in them is “very contrived” and she “would have preferred to learn the language in an organic form”. Sean, 22, a former student of structured Chinese lessons, gave an example of this problem; “I think a major issue of this was the relentless focus on fictional scenarios, like those weird emails you have to respond to. It made me reach the same conclusion I had for maths at the time: who is going to use this in the future?” Jiaying, 25, another former student, acknowledged that while Chinese teachers were usually patient, the teaching methods “weren’t creative, fun, or particularly engaging”.

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When asked about whether English lessons were the preferred language lesson, the responses were almost unanimous in agreement. Jinyi admitted that she preferred English lessons to mother tongue where ideas were discussed instead of being made to memorize “weird, stilted passages” in Mandarin. Anika, 21, a former Tamil student, preferred the creativity and open-mindedness of English lessons.

Others also pointed to their weaker foundation in their Mother Tongue Language as a reason for the preference, with Sean explaining that he still had problems holding basic conversations in Mandarin. Jiaying, even with a decent command of her Mother Tongue, still felt that she could put in less effort to understand her teachers in English.

Finally, when asked about whether their perception of their mother tongue was affected by the school lessons, results were mixed. While Jinyi’s perception of her mother tongue was largely unaffected as it was already shaped by her working in a Chinese bookstore, Anika did not like her mother tongue teacher and that translated into negative feelings regarding her mother tongue in general.

Changes are underway for the conduction of mother tongue lessons. Ms. Thia Lee Lian from St. Stephen’s school found that primary one students now “learn more about introducing themselves, understanding about their friends’ interests and also the school environment.” This, she observed, was a transition from the traditional textbook-focused approach. She also saw her students react positively in terms of communication, as they now get more chances to interact with their classmates. Further changes have been discovered by Channel News Asia’s reporter Lianne Chia’s personal testimony in How has Singapore’s Chinese Language syllabus evolved? We went back to school to find out as she took a Mandarin lesson in Tanjong Katong Secondary School and saw that students were allowed to ask questions in English. They were also exposed to Chinese pop songs and asked to write about what they want to do in life.

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These changes are encouraging, but changes in the curriculum as a whole will take time. It can also differ from school to school and teacher to teacher. For those who have left school, the chance has passed and gone.

Yet, this serves to remember that the Mother Tongue Language, like any language, is more than what is taught in school. It is more than how teachers choose to teach it, how society chooses to brand it, or how people around you feel about it. Your Mother Tongue Language may sound boring when a conservative person is using it, or more trendy when someone open-minded is speaking it. If you always rely upon how people around you teach or use the language to form your opinions on it, you will only be seeing it through their lens. You will not get to know your mother tongue at its core and the full value it can bring uniquely as a language.

For instance, I know that the Chinese language can contain and convey a lot of meaning within very few words. It is also a language where subtle emotions can be explored (in my opinion) with more sensitivity than the English language. Clichéd as it sounds, every language has its beauty that makes it irreplaceable in the world. I do not see the need to choose. For instance, I love American rock band Nirvana as much as I love Cantonese rock band Beyond (whose lyrics I can understand in Chinese). I appreciate Chinese literary classics as much as I enjoy English ones.

There are plenty of films you can watch in your Mother Tongue Language (with English subtitles at first if need be), books you can read (start with the simple ones) and songs you can try listening to. The good news is, real life is not a class. There is no set text. You may not enjoy all of them, but be open to whatever comes your way. Be open to what your mother tongue is about as a whole, beyond what schools and society have defined for you. Maybe, just maybe, you will be surprised at what you find.

Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team.

Huang Yimin

Aiming to live passionately and not settle for a mundane life. Firm believer in the Oscar Wilde quote "You can never be overdressed or overeducated". I wish to publish a novel someday in the unknown future.

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