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In recent weeks, there have been discussions on whether to reduce the weighting of Mother Tongue Language (MTL) [1] for PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) students. Mother Tongue Language is a subject in the Singapore education curriculum. The languages are Tamil, Malay and Mandarin. Students can choose to study one of these languages other than the compulsory English language subject which is the main medium of instruction for the core subjects, Mathematics and Science.

It has since been announced by the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, that there will not be any change in the weighting system. [2]

So why bring this issue of weighting to the table in the first place? At the outset, it is not Mother Tongue that gives the child a head start in his studies. We all know that. When a student fails his English language examination, he is doomed for the rest of his life at school. He can be great at Mathematics and Science subjects, but he gets nowhere near the next level without a pass in his English language; scoring D7 in English is worse than B4 in Mother Tongue. If you fail English, you fail as a student. If you fail your Mother Tongue Language, the system automatically kicks you out and into the less advanced group of students. Your child sees his grades and in the end he says, ‘I don’t like this subject?’. Any teacher will tell you, if you cannot win the hearts of the child to learn, you will never win their minds to learn it.

The working parents are also faced with the challenge to communicate only in English. The letters from the bank, bills and receipts are all printed in English. If you travel to Little India, Geylang Serai, Chinatown or Orchard Road on the train, passenger display screens in the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) stations are all written in English. When we tap the EZlink cards on those machines which seem to understand English, our balance is shown in numbers. Thanks for the invention of symbols and numerals, those who cannot read English is spared of the embarrassment of not understanding any English because the mind understands X means no entry or exit and a tick “✓” in green means ‘go or you are ok to go. A passenger who cannot read English is saved by just following others who go through the same route and listening to the friendly voices piping through public address systems speaking in four languages.

“Next station, Bishan Interchange. Passengers who are continuing their journey on the circle line please alight and transfer to Platform…..” If you do not understand the rest of the English used, at least you would have heard the name Bishan interchange. If it is your stop, you know you have to alight. Besides there are so many other passengers onboard you can turn to get directions from.

“对不起! Excuse me Miss ah. This one Orchard Lud?” (Singlish)

“Excuse me Miss. Is this Orchard Road Station?” (English)

“How come so long never come? Wait here for so long alleidy.” (Singlish)

“How come the bus is taking so long to arrive? I have waiting here for a long time already.” (English)

Highlighting the fact many Singaporeans speak Singlish (Singapore English) only results in young parents to keep encouraging their children to speak “better English” at home. Mother Tongue takes second place because it is not needed for them to cope with problem sums in Mathematics and Science experiments.

Children bring home lots of homework from school. It is so regular and constant that they cannot help but keep thinking only in English. Their jobs as students are done only when homework is finished. Children stay up every night finishing homework and preparing for the examinations at very young age, when they ought to be getting sleep. More homework means more time thinking in English. Parents are so anxious with their kids’ performance at school that they engage private tutors or send their kids to tuition centers, for English enrichment programmes. Again, more English is used.

Whenever Mother Tongue Language homework is brought back, it feels as if they have just fetched a distant relative from overseas at the airport.

Grandparents also start to join in the education process. When they take their grandkids to the playground, they too speak Singlish to their children. “If don’t speak English, dey don’t understand.”

Children learn very early at pre-school that of all the different languages spoken by people in Singapore, English is the most important.

Flashback: When Learning Was So Much Fun

When I was a kid, my neighbourhood friends do not speak English or Mandarin when we went out to play. together. We left our English at school. By interacting with other kids and their parents who do not speak English at home, we learn a few more words of Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese and Tamil. Our childhood is as colourful as the number of different languages we could speak and tease one another in.

Television, radio and the textbooks were our resources to get to know the English language better from home. Television programmes such as “Mind Your Language’, “Donny and Marie Show” and “The Brady Bunch” were great to watch because they showed native English actors and actresses. When the shows ended, we are back to speaking dialects and Mother Tongue with our parents and neighbours. We switched languages just as often as we transit from one activity to another. To get a storybook in English as a present is like receiving the Nintendo DS or Wii games.

At that time, my parents were already having issues with us speaking more English and Chinese (Mandarin and Hokkien) at home. We did Mandarin! One could only imagine the frustration our parents felt when they had to deal with us in Malay. Thankfully, their spirits remained strong and they only spoke the language they know best, Malay. They left the teaching of these foreign languages to the others who know better.

What can we do to promote and encourage more people to speak in their Mother Tongue?

There can only be one answer. Start using the Mother Tongue more often and leave the English to the schools and workplaces. Post your messages on Twitter, Facebook and on your mobile phones in your Mother Tongue. People from China post in Mandarin, people from India post in Hindi, people from Malaysia and Indonesia post in Bahasa Melayu and Indonesia respectively. So why won’t Singapore Malays, Chinese and Indians post in their respective Mother Tongue Languages?

When local Singaporeans post messages using their Mother Tongue, they make a mess of the language by typing in slangs, colloquial Singlish and acronyms.

“Cantik seh! Very de nice.”

“Wah! Where you got dat from? You come my house tonite sing want or not?”

Strangely enough, social networking is boosted because of such languages being used online. There is a sense of connection and belonging when you read your friends’ messages written in such a form. “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Someone used to say this to me. That is so true with language. If you really need to make your point across, use the language that you are most comfortable with, not what people are most comfortable to listen to from you. At least if your language is broken, you still would have put your point across.

The wheel that spins to keep the social circle active is powered by the behaviour of the culture. It is what we do in groups. As individuals we are able to remove ourselves from behaving informally. Rather than writing in our Mother Tongue Langauges which we feel less confident in, we write in the English language which we have spent years studying and receiving certificates for passing it at schools.

Parents ought to encourage their children to continue speaking in their Mother Tongue Languages. In mixed marriages especially, it is important for the Asian spouse to uphold the roots of their native tongue by passing it down to their children at will. English is important but with language comes culture, and Asian culture is far too rich and remote to be described in just English language. There are many instances in Asian culture (food, fashion, style of doing things for business etc) that only Asian languages can be used to describe and explain.

[1] Google Results On This Topic : Mother Tongue Weighting in PSLE

[2]“Mother Tongue, the way forward”: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sketches out the Government’s thinking on the issue