Cunning Linguist

March 6, 2009

european_day_languages_talktome1We’re destined to be a very mediocre people.


The Nanyang Technological University hosted a Language and Diversity Symposium yesterday. At the Symposium, Dr Ng Bee Chin – head of the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies – observed that young children are not speaking dialects anymore. An undeniable fact.


Dr Ng also noted that languages die off quickly when people don’t use them; again something pretty obvious. She even ventured that it only took one generation for a language to die out. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with linguistics can tell you that the estimated 6500 languages in the world are decreasing with each passing generation. As world languages homogenize into a select few – English (the West and Asia), Mandarin (Asia), French (parts of Europe and Africa) and Spanish (America and Latin America) – many dialects are rolling off our tongues for the last time.


And so too with local ones like Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka or Teochew. Well not so much dying off since they are spoken in different parts of the world but to all intent and purpose, dead among young Singaporeans. I remember doing NS years ago and the working class language was Hokkien. Today, returning for reservist training, I only hear Mandarin, even among the eighteen year old Bengs and Sengs.


Dr Ng has a point. We’re losing the ability to speak dialects. This is a fact. To my knowledge, she did not advocate Singaporeans re-learning them, nor did she urge schools to teach them. As an academic in an academic symposium, she was making an empirical observation.


Lo and behold, today we have a letter from MM Lee’s Press Secretary to the Straits Times Forum Page (7 March 09). In the letter, the Press Sec not only defended the government’s policy to eliminate dialects but also wrote:


Many Singaporeans are now fluent in both English and Mandarin. It would be stupid for any Singapore agency or the NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin.


One really wonders if such language and tone is called for. In a country that laments the dearth of people willing to speak up, surely the defensive stance is a sign of insecurity? Does the logic for every public policy need to be rammed down people’s throat at every opportunity? What happened to the university as a space for open questioning?


But let me push the envelope a bit further. Why can’t a local university teach dialects? Isn’t a university a site of learning and knowledge? So what if the Division of Linguistics at NTU started courses on Hokkien or Hakka? Western universities still study Latin and Aramaic. What if such Hokkien and Hakka courses were offered as extra modules and were available to all students? Will the government shut them down? Will it only permit schools and universities to teach what the PAP elite thinks is right for the national economy?


The truth is, the PAP government has never seen universities as sites of enquiry for enquiry’s sake or knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Perhaps the tumultuous student politics on campus during the 1950s and 1960s had something to do with this. Instead, the government sees universities as a place to produce people with the right skills for the market. Absolutely nothing wrong with this. Problem is people designed for the market will always be owned by the market. Meanwhile the spirit of enquiry at local universities is as flaccid as an 80 year old man on a Viagra cold turkey. Again, absolutely nothing wrong. Except that we’re always being scolded by the government for not being creative or innovative. Problem is the minute we say something contrary to PAP mantra, we’re called ‘stupid’.


Like I said, we’re destined to be a very mediocre people.




14 Responses to “Cunning Linguist”

  1. horsewords Says:

    Unfortunately when it comes to language death the tendency is to wait until it is too late. Last year I worked with a speaker of Oneida, a dying First Nations Language in Ontario, Canada. The First Nations Committee was looking for a way to teach children basic Oneida. A computer based system was created where one could click on a picture and hear the speaker say the word. While this was a great attempt, many words had been forgotten and children lack the interest to learn a language that hardly anyone speaks.

  2. mavis Says:

    dialects aside, some singaporeans don’t even use their mother tongues any more. anyway, Dr Ng Bee Chin is a she, no?

  3. groundnotes Says:

    yes, Dr Ng’s a she. thanks!

  4. rama Says:

    We need to stop this old man from talking down to us. ENOUGH! really we need some change in our political scene, otherwise we will remain “stupid” , thanks to the PAP who have one-track thinking.

  5. Ganga Says:

    2 languages are enough for you lesser mortals to work.

    In fact they would only force one unto you if there wasn’t such an overwhelming resistance to that approach. Learning languages in Singapore is not about cultural identity or proficiency but is merely a means to an end – as far as the government is concerned. You just need to know the langauage well enough to be a worker.

    As for the tone of the response, I am pretty sure that the text came from the man himself and due to groupthink/fear, the PS did not (dare to) exercise whatever little discretion he could have summoned to whittle down the tone of the reply appropriately.

  6. hehe dunno wat will all the clan associations think… pap lose votes loh!

  7. Plude Says:

    You’d think someone like the MINISTER MENTOR’S ‘press secretary’ would have a brain, but lol, some things are just not meant to be.

  8. Jason Says:

    hi groundnotes,

    its the first time im reading your blog, not read any of your other articles but i must say that i cant agree with you more in your “cunning linguist”.

    i read the forum letter by MM’s personal secretary (whoever he is) and was thinking how wrong can this person be? and how can he dismiss another person’s ideas/thoughts as “stupid”?!
    why can’t languages be learnt in parallel and even complementary (just like how dialects can complement mandarin). well, if we go on having pple like that with such mindset being the private secretaries of MM/SMs/Ministers, yes, we will end up very much a people of mediocrity.

  9. Jim Says:

    Let me deduce how Singapore’s no dialect at all cost language policy is made:

    1. One old man finds it difficult to be fluent in two or more languages. Old man himself admits that without regular tutoring by a personal Chinese tutor, he would forget how to use chinese within a few months.

    2. Old man considers himself the smartest person in Singapore, and if the smartest person struggles to keep two or more languages, the lesser mortal peasants of inferior Chinese coolie stock couldn’t have done better.

    3. Old man decides to make things simple for the peasants by banning dialects, so that peasants can concentrate on two languages only.

  10. Jim Says:

    Any tom, dick and harry can learn PuTongHua by signing up with a language school. So Singaporeans who only know Mandarin is no different from any tom, dick and harry. We had sacrificed our natural advantage.

  11. Kevin Says:

    Well, the ruling class is this tiny island is from a minority dialect group. A people group despised and rejected throughout Chinese history.

    If the majority Teochew & Hokkien were not sidelined by removing their common dialects, their various business clans would have continued to prosper and could played a greater role in the nation building and that would weaken the power base of ruling class.

    Such letter are desperate attempts to fool grandsons & granddaughters of simpleton south china farmers & fishermen living in this island to abandon their dislects. Then again, not all Teochew & Hokkien were from the stock of farmers & fishermen.

  12. Shane Says:

    Precisely. The university is no longer a place for learning and knowledge. To them it’s just another factory for the production of their army of workers.

  13. G Says:

    It is largely true to say that such a language policy has resulted in us being a mediocre people. This is because it has rammed specified modes of communication down the throats of people who may not be predisposed to learning them well, and would probably have been better off knowing other dialects or languages. Trust human ingenuity (and the market!) to come up with cool, well-paying jobs for these people, even if we can’t think up of a job now for someone who can only speak Hokkien and Cantonese well. If we want a dynamic, creative economy, we can’t be homogeneous.

    Instead, the govt should only ensure that a critical mass of people are fluent enough in English and Mandarin, a percentage of that very fluent, and the rest can be fluent in other languages or dialects. When you know another way of saying something or expressing an emotion, it lets you see other perspectives more easily, allowing more creativity. It is known that different languages have different focuses, eg English is very time-based, and rather linear in thought.

    The problem is the govt tends to go to the extremes with its policies, leaving no wriggle room. With this policy, there is no specialisation in languages – Adam Smith must be looking very disapprovingly at us now.

  14. hazel Says:

    I just have to say that reading your articles and the subsequent comments left my other readers is a sheer pleasure. If only more Singaporeans are willing to speak up this way, the voice of the crowd will be deafening and no authority or controlled media will be able to stop it. Keep writing!

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