Singapore has almost wiped out its mother tongues

Feb 20, 2020

WHEN SANDY, a young Chinese Singaporean, learned that her grandmother was terminally ill, she signed up for a workshop in the Hokkien language run by, a social enterprise founded to help Singaporeans communicate with the city-state’s older Chinese residents—including within their own families. Sandy is fluent in English and Mandarin, the official “mother tongue” of Chinese Singaporeans. Her grandmother spoke little of either. Before she died, Sandy thrilled her by asking in Hokkien, “What was your childhood like?” She was even able to understand some of the answer.

Their language barrier was the product of decades of linguistic engineering. English has been the language of instruction in nearly all schools since 1987, to reinforce Singapore’s global competitive edge. But, depending on ethnicity, pupils study a second language—typically Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. These are intended, as Lisa Lim of the University of Sydney puts it, to add “cultural ballast” vis-a-vis English. In the case of Mandarin, its acquisition has been reinforced by the government’s annual “Speak Mandarin Campaign”, started in 1979.

Mandarin is a standardised version of the language spoken by the people of the vast plains of northern China. Yet hardly any of the Chinese from whom Singaporeans are descended hailed from there. They came...

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