“This drop-off in the language capabilities of students will be an area of focus for Singapore’s bilingualism thrust” (Immersion Programmes, Internships in the Works to Boost Use of Mother Tongue, Ng Jing Yng).
Not only have initiatives such as immersion programmes, internships in Asia, and the use of digital technologies or even differentiated approaches in the classroom – so that Singaporeans will continue “to understand that bilingualism is part of the country’s national identity and their cultural heritage” (TODAY, Jul. 5) – been mooted before, but unless there are more concrete ways to quantify their effectiveness, and by extension how students have benefited from these initiatives, little progress will be made. After all, despite attempts to raise standards of second-language education, anecdotes seem to show that many Singaporeans continue to struggle in school, and at the workplace.
A commonly cited statistic is that the proportion of students taking Higher Chinese, Malay, or Tamil at the GCE O-Level examinations, yet three points are often overlooked. First, students who pass both English and their Higher Mother Tongue subjects will be given a concession of two points when they apply to a junior college, so that may function as an incentive. Second, while the option to study a Higher Mother Tongue is largely dependent on Primary School Leaving Examination scores, schools too have the flexibility to allow students who do not meet the criteria to do so. And finally, mere enrolment into a Higher Mother Tongue programme is no indication of proficiency levels.
Questions about proficiency are meaningful, because they are indicators of whether an initiative has been successful, and therefore at an aggregate level gives a fairer evaluation of the state of bilingual education in Singapore. Otherwise, how would the Ministry of Education (MOE) prove that an immersion programme or an internship has improved language standards? Or that a particular pedagogy or curriculum should be continued? Even if it is assumed that the MOE communicates with its teachers on a regular basis, is the same done with students, to ascertain if they are proficient or – in the first place – interested in their “mother tongues”.
Getting perspectives of students will be especially useful, given what appears to be growing scepticism over the relevance of a “mother tongue”. Since one in five marriages conducted is now inter-ethnic (increasing from 13.1 per cent in 2004 to 20.4 per cent in 2014), and that English is the language spoken most at home (36.9 per cent of residents, compared to 34.9 per cent for Mandarin), what should a “mother tongue” mean in the future? If the proposition is that a second language is necessary for economic or pragmatic purposes, then should there be greater flexibility on the choices made available? Until we have a clearer idea of how proficient students and Singaporeans are in their “mother tongues”, and if initiatives have been active, we may end up running in circles.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.