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Can English be a Singaporean mother tongue?

The debate some months ago regarding SMRT’s announcement of station names in only English and Mandarin threw up some interesting views.

Can English be a Singaporean mother tongue?

Surveys suggest that as younger Singaporeans grow up as native speakers of English, they will increasingly claim ownership of English, with the language being core to their identity. TODAY file photo

The debate some months ago regarding SMRT’s announcement of station names in only English and Mandarin threw up some interesting views.

Proponents raised arguments that there was nothing wrong in catering to the linguistic needs of elderly Singaporeans and Chinese tourists. Those in opposition contended that it neglected our Malay and Indian communities. Some groups wanted all four official languages to be used. The incident was a microcosm of different groups in Singapore with competing linguistic interests and ideologies.

Of course, the social and economic dominance of English in Singapore is not new. Both the Government and various groups have long been trying to reverse the declining use of mother tongue languages. However, for the first time in our history, those who use and see English as their de facto mother tongue, are becoming the majority of the population.

There are implications for all of us.


After two generations of the bilingual policy, many Singaporeans are increasingly using English as their principal home language. This shift towards English is prevalent in all racial groups, but most apparent amongst young Chinese families. According to Ministry of Education figures, the proportion of Chinese students entering Primary 1 who speak predominantly English at home, rose from 36 per cent in 1994 to 50 per cent in 2004.

At the same time, surveys suggest that as younger Singaporeans grow up as native speakers of English (ie, English being the first language they acquire as a child), they will increasingly claim ownership of English, with the language being core to their identity. This is not to say that Singaporeans are becoming monolingual English-speakers — it simply suggests that many increasingly count English, among other languages, as integral to their identity.

On one hand, we have Singaporeans who claim English as core to their sense of self. On the other, the Government’s official position is that English cannot be our mother tongue. While there might be some Singaporeans who can accommodate both ideas, not all can or will do so.

Government rhetoric of how Mandarin, Malay or Tamil is a link to cultural heritage, rings hollow to those who have grown up more accustomed to a Singaporean way of life. This is partially why educators face an uphill struggle in trying to interest young pupils in mother tongue learning.

These are challenging times for governments and individuals who still view the links between language, culture and race as enduring and immutable.

Local academics generally agree that language policies based rigidly on ethnicity may appear increasingly unsustainable. The bilingual policy need not change, though the justification for it will have to. This is in light of a progressively diverse and cosmopolitan Singaporean population that does not fit conventional Chinese, Malay and Indian categories.


The demographic trends also suggest that the linguistic and ideological divide is generational. Older Singaporeans are the ones who tend to believe in the enduring links between one’s biological heritage and cultural practice.

This means that conflicts between groups of differing linguistic interests and ideologies will decline in aggression and regularity. This is as linguistic practices among younger Singaporeans converge, and as we evolve a Singaporean identity that clings to English.

The current influx of new immigrants might have a substantial impact on our linguistic and cultural ecology. Growing numbers of Mandarin-speaking immigrants will boost flagging figures among Singapore-born speakers.

Even so, the public and state consensus thus far is that new citizens should adapt to local linguistic practices, with proficiency in English being of utmost importance. This to avoid the development of linguistic enclaves, and prevent segregation between new immigrants and other Singaporeans.


There is, however, a substantial obstacle to our claim of English as our mother tongue. The notion “native speaker of English” is tied to particular nationalities and ethnicities — that is, Anglo-Saxons — and this is still prevalent throughout the world.

It is partially reinforced by our own Government’s rhetoric of English as not mother tongue, as well as campaigns such as the Speak Good English Movement that contribute to our inferiority complex regarding English.

For instance, Singaporean students who apply to universities in North America and the United Kingdom are not exempt from submitting TOEFL and IELTS scores. The requirement is automatically waived for British/American “home” students or international students from countries such as Australia. This is despite the fact that Singaporean pupils consistently outperform most nations (including the UK) in international tests in English literacy and proficiency.

Those who argue that Singaporeans lack intelligibility in spoken English must not have heard the British in their “Cockney”, “Geordie” or “Brummie” dialects. Yet, these are considered “native speakers of English”, while Singaporeans are not.

Yes, many young Singaporeans grow up speaking English, are more proficient in English than British children, and are emotionally attached to the language. Many Singaporeans can and do identify with English as part of our selves, but this identity is constantly undermined by a lack of institutional recognition (both within and without Singapore).

Any prospect of developing a Singaporean “core” cannot be realised without the acknowledgement of English as one of our mother tongues. A step forward may be for Singapore’s own language policies and official stance to reflect our sociolinguistic reality. It is only then that we may expect international acceptance.

Luke Lu is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication, King’s College London

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