July 2012
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Patrick NG Chin Leong, University of Niigata, Niigata City, Japan

Mother tongue education has become a major controversial issue in the 21st century as scholars have called attention to the individual’s right to use and learn his or her mother tongue as a basic human right (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992), minorities should be given sufficient opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to receiveinstruction in their mother tongue.

Mother tongue education has also been given due emphasis in Singapore’s language-in-education policy (Lee, 2011; Oon & Kor, 2009). The goal in this article is to highlight some recent issues raised by various stakeholders (policymakers, educators, parents, students, and school administrators) surrounding mother tongue education in Singapore to draw attention to some applications in language-in-education policies.


Singapore is a small (714.3 sq km) island state located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. With a population of approximately 5 million, it is a young country of many races whose forefathers are from Southeast Asia, China, India, and various European countries. In 1965, the country developed a policy of multilingualism (Rappa & Wee, 2006), resulting in the Republic of Singapore Independence Act of 1965, which decreed that Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English would be the four official languages of the nation. In addition, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil were officially designated as the mother tongues of the Chinese, Malay, and Indian communities, respectively.

In 1966, the country implemented a policy of bilingualism that made it mandatory for all students in Singapore to study English as a first language, and a mother tongue language (Malay, Tamil or Chinese) as a second language. The “English-knowing bilingualism” policy renders English the language of instruction for nearly all subjects except the mother tongue languages in Singaporean schools. As Pendley (1983) stated, Singapore’s bilingual education theoretical framework is essentially additive, based on the belief that two languages can be functionally compartmentalized, maintaining diglossia.


However, over the years, various controversies and issues pertaining to the bilingual educational policy emerged through various headlines in the local press:

“Was Chinese wrongly taught for thirty years?” (Oon & Kor, 2009)

“Singaporeans split on Mother Tongue” (Zhang & Hussain, 2010)

“Price of Bilingualism” (P. Tan, 2009)

Despite efforts by some parents to cultivate an interest in Mandarin (the mother tongue of the Chinese population), an increasing number of children appeared to be indifferent to the subject in schools (Lau,2010).

Currently, the mother tongue is given only 25 percent weight in the primary school exit examination in Singapore (K. B. Tan, 2010). Unfortunately, some students perceive their mother tongue merely as an examination subject for progress in the academic ladder, while others have little or no incentive to learn it in schools (Lee, 2009). A major reason for the lack of interest in the mother tongue subject can be attributed to the overwhelming presence of English in Singapore. This allows Singapore to plug into the world economy, yet runs the risk of turning Singapore into a society, where linguistic differentiation is marked by social stratification, resulting in an unequal power distribution between English-speaking and non-English-speaking citizens.

As a result of the importance of English in Singapore, more and more Chinese Singaporeans speak English instead of their mother tongue at home. For example, Oon and Kor (2009) reported that 3 out of 5 Chinese pupils entering elementary schools in Singapore speak English at home.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former minister mentor and initiator of Singapore’s bilingual policy, expressed concern that the encroachment of English in the home environment could hinder the intergenerational transmission of the mother tongue within Chinese families (Lee, 2011) and shared his concern that, some 30 years after English became the first language, the pendulum had swung too much in the direction of English, leaving many younger Singaporeans unable to speak their mother tongue (Chen, 2011).Along these lines, some educational leaders are worried that this trend will eventually lead to a decline of the Chinese language (Lee, 2011).

In addition, it has also been reported that an increasing number of Chinese students from English-speaking families state that learning the mother tongue subject in school was painful and stressful (Lee, 2011). This issue was first highlighted in 1997 when the former prime minister, Mr. Goh Chok Tong, flagged the need to study and rectify the learning difficulties of ethnic Chinese from English-speaking homes (Lee, 2011, p. 183):

These children have at least average ability. They have no difficulties with their other school subjects. But they find Chinese (the mother tongue subject) in school very difficult. This is despite intensive effort, extra tuition and close supervision from parents.

To prevent the Chinese language from halting the academic progress of their children, an increasing number of Chinese parents―specifically those from English-speaking home environments―have called for a reduction of the weighting of the mother tongue in the Primary School Exit Examination (K. B. Tan, 2010). Zhang and Hussain (2010) reported that the Ministry of Education received more than 1,024 signatures from parents petitioning for the reduction of the mother tongue.

The mother tongue reduction issue aroused strong emotions in Singapore, particularly among English-speaking Chinese parents. Two surveys of parents and children conducted by the Ministry of Education in 1998 and 2004 (Lee, 2011, p. 134) reflected an inordinate amount of anxiety and frustration over the learning of the mother tongue among parents from English-speaking home environments. Some parents have also criticized the mother tongue requirement as misguided―something that has resulted in students merely studying Chinese as a second language to pass examinations, while resenting its use in their postschool lives (Balji, 2010).

The Ministry of Education is also aware of the widespread concern among Singaporean parents that their children are being penalized for a lack of linguistic proficiency, rather than a lack of intellectual adequacy (Rappa & Wee, 2006). Minister Mentor Lee has admitted that the mother tongue requirement was pitched too high and did not take into consideration students’ attitudes and aptitudes in language learning (Lee, 2009).

In response to these challenges, the Ministry of Education developed a B syllabus, enabling students to opt for a simpler mother tongue course in secondary school. In a parliamentary speech in January 1999, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained the rationale behind the implementation of the B syllabus as an attempt to teach the mother tongue language at a more realistic level―ultimately, taking into consideration the increasing number of students from English-speaking homes (Lee, 2011). However, this tweak in the mother tongue policy has caused heated public reactions, especially among leaders within the Chinese community, who feel that such a move would lead to a deterioration of the Chinese language (Lee, 2011). In this regard, some members of Parliament representing the Chinese community had called for a comprehensive review of the teaching of the mother tongue in schools to ensure that the mother tongue remains a living language, rather than being a mere examination subject.


There are some implications for language planners that may derive from the issues and controversies surrounding mother tongue education in Singapore. Thus, official planners may need to adopt an ecological orientation (Hornberger, 2003) to implement language policies and to acknowledge that multiple languages in the linguistic landscape are resources, not problems, for the community. Providing more spaces for the mother tongue subject in institutional contexts will help increase students’ appreciation for their mother tongue and motivate them to learn the language. Moreover, education planners should address the continua of biliteracy model proposed by Hornberger (2003) and decide the mix of languages, literacies, and discourses aftertaking into consideration the history of and relationship between languages within the school community. In addition, as suggested by Canagarajah (2005), official language planners should strive toward a more localized orientation, considering the tensions, ambiguities, and paradoxes that exist within the community in which language planning is effected.

In order to maintain the standard of, and to sustain students’ interest in, the learning of the mother tongue, schools may want to consider the following:

(i) The mother tongue should be the main teaching language for the first six years. Empirical evidence (Ramirez, 1992) shows that using the home language for instructional purposes for at least five to six years contributes to a more successful schooling experience for emergent bilinguals (Ramirez, 1992).

(ii) The content of mother tongue education should incorporate local cultural traditions and customs. In order for students to attain a high level of proficiency in the mother tongue, the cultural content of mother tongue education needs to be context-sensitive and applicable to pertinent situations in the local ethnic community. This will ensure that the mother tongue is widely used, appreciated, and socially relevant in the community.

(iii) Mother tongue learning should include cognitively complex tasks. Skutnabb-Kangas (2009) suggested that mother tongue education should incorporate both children’s and community’s experiences and knowledge, progressing from pragmatic everyday thinking to scientific thinking, and thereby taking students from basic interpersonal communicative skills to cognitive-academic language proficiency (Cummins, 1991).

(iv) Include well-trained bi- or multilingual teachers in the classroom. The availability of bilingual or multilingual teachers in the classroom will help children develop metalinguistic awareness, the main factor benefiting high-level bilingual or multilingual children when compared with monolingual children (Mohanty, 1995). In addition, the presence of effective bilingual or multilingual teachers will help create nonthreatening learning contexts for students learning the mother tongue, as well as a favorable environment for dual-language education―fostering the successful development of both the mother tongue and the dominant language.


Balji, P. N. (2010, August 19). Potholes on the road to bilingualism. China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn

Canagarajah, S. (2005). Accommodating tensions in language-in-education policies: An afterword. In A. Lin & P. Martin (Eds.), Decolonization, globalisation(pp. 194-201).Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Chen, S. (2011, October 14). The myth of the bilingual Chinese Singaporean. Asian Correspondence. Retrieved from http://www.asiancorrespondent.com

Cummins, J. (1991). Conversational and academic language proficiency in bilingual contexts. AILA Review, 8, 75-89.

Hornberger, N. (2003). Bilingual education and language maintenance: A Southern Peruvian quechua case. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Foris.

Lau, S.S. (2010, May 9). A mum’s concern and hope. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.asiaone.com/News/Education/Story.

Lee, K. Y. (2009, November 17). Insistence on bilingualism in early years of education policy was wrong: Minister Mentor Lee. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.news.asiaone.com

Lee, K. Y. (2011). My lifelong challenge: Singapore’s bilingual journey. Singapore: Straits Times Press.

Mohanty, A. K. (1995). Bilingualism in a multilingual society. Psycho-social and Pedagogical Implications. Mysore, India: Central Institute of Indian Languages.

Oon, C., & Kor, K. B. (2009, November 29). Was Chinese wrongly taught for thirty years? The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.news.asiaone.com/News/

Pendley, C. (1983). Language, policy and social transformation in contemporary Singapore. Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, 11(2), 46-58.

Ramirez, D. (1992). Executive summary. Bilingual Research Journal, 16, 1-62.

Rappa, A. L., & L. Wee. (2006). Language policy and modernity in South East Asia. New York, NY: Springer.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2009,). The stakes: Linguistic diversity, linguistic human rights and mother tongue based multilingual education or linguistic genocide, crimes against humanity and an even faster destruction of biodiversity and our planet. Paper presented at the Bamako International Forum on Multilingualism, Bamako, Mali. Retrieved from http://www.tove-skutnabb

Tan, K. B. (2010, May 5). Mother tongue: A hot button issue. TODAY. Retrieved from http://www. news.asiaone.com

Tan, P. (2009, November 26). Price of bilingualism. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www. news.asiaone.com

Zhang, R. & Hussain, Z. (2010, May 11). Singaporeans split on Mother Tongue weight age. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.news.asiaone.com

Dr. Patrick Ng earned his doctorate in education (applied linguistics and TESOL) from Leicester University, United Kingdom. He is currently an assistant professor in the International Studies and Regional Development Department at the University of Niigata Prefecture, Japan. His research interests focus on bilingualism, readers’ theater, and multicultural literacy.

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