Multi-lingual Education in Singapore


Yours Humanly

December 22, 2019

Multi-lingual Education in Singapore

Singaporean education is world renowned, but what makes it such a great place? And what would be the first step to re-creating that system anywhere?

Let’s look at only one facet of Singaporean education—mandatory mother tongue instruction. One of Singapore’s greatest strengths lies in its cultural diversity that stretches back to its roots. This particular 719 square kilometers has been subject to colonialism by no less than three different colonizers over its 193-year-old modern history. As such, the light motif of multi-culturalism has inextricably woven itself into the fabric of the nation’s collective consciousness.

The government, in a laudable effort to maintain this legacy, introduced a policy mandating bilingual education. Passed in 1966, English would be one of two languages taught, but not necessarily the medium of instruction. Due to enrollment numbers dropping for non-English medium schools, English became the normal medium of instruction, with courses for Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay offered according to their heritage.

Singapore’s approach to language planning in the education context followed an instrumentalist theory—language is an instrument, and features can be objectively evaluated to determine the situations in which they would maximize potential. Dr. L. Quentin Dixon, associate professor at Texas A&M wrote in a paper delineating Singapore’s exceptionalism as pertaining to implications for second language acquisition that “a nation can successfully implement widespread education through a non-native medium starting at an early age with little home-language development and achieve good academic results.”

While this policy was started with the best intentions, it is not without criticism. A child born in Singapore to Malay parents is ethnically Malay, therefore, they register as Malay and they will have Malay lessons. If he would prefer to learn Tamil or Mandarin or something else, he won’t be allowed to take that until later in his schooling. Furthermore, linguistically speaking, English is the mother tongue for many Singaporeans. Highly respected linguist Dr. Tan Ying Ting has posited that if a governmental policy saying that English is a bona fide mother tongue, “there would no longer be a need for anyone to be tied to an ethnic mother tongue…One can envisage many different alternatives to making language policies more viable in Singapore, and more reflective of our linguistic nuances.”

But perhaps most telling about Singapore’s multilingual approach comes from the citizens themselves. As cultural tides shift, multilingualism, once seen as burdensome and unnecessary by some, has made a comeback in popularity. Alvona Loh Zi Hui and Ashton Ng Jing Kai, both Singaporean nationals, wrote for TodayOnline that “bilingualism is essential for confidence in our cultural identities.”

Singapore’s current multi-lingual education stems from its cultural history, its practical sensitivities, and its forecasting of the value of strong cultural identity in the future. The first step then, in creating an effective multilingual education system, is prioritizing it. It’s clear that having a multi-lingual society is very important in Singapore, and that they demonstrate that value through enacting real policies that promote this.

Curious? Want more? Original op-ed by Alvona Loh Zi Hui and Ashton Ng Jing Kai Original op-ed by Dr. Tan Ying Ting Original paper published by L. Quentin Dixon, The Bilingual Education Policy in Singapore: Implications for Second Language Acquisition

Eleanor Chin

Eleanor is a freelance writer crazy about international public policy, micro-mobility, ed-tech, venture capital, and of course, education. A native of the Bay area, she can normally be found reading, writing, eating, or listening to podcasts.