“A meaningful way to achieve this is by encouraging more Singaporeans to acquire a third language, namely, the mother tongue of another racial group in Singapore” (Picking Up A Third Language Can Firm Up Bonds Between Singaporeans, Valerie Yeo).
The proposal for Singaporeans to acquire the mother tongue of another racial group in Singapore – so as “to expand our cultural consciousness beyond our individual ethnic groups” (TODAY, Jun. 9) – is well-intentioned, though more practical thought should be given to its policy implementation. The benefits, for instance, are clear, but what about the costs? At first glance, the school appears to be the most expedient platform for this extension to language education, but bearing in mind demographic changes and a growing body of research affirming the importance of preschool instruction, the home may provide a more conducive platform for such learning.
Challenges in the school are not limited to manpower and resource constraints (which perhaps explains why the current enrichment programme for Conversational Chinese and Malay has missed its target). Already stretched by a curriculum that is oftentimes deemed too stressful, it is not clear whether schoolchildren can actually take on another subject, even if – as proposed – a Primary 3 level of proficiency is desired. More fundamentally, how are students coping at the moment with two languages? The ministry may point to trends in grades and pass rates, vis-à-via curriculum standards, yet these should be squared with the experiences of students: Are they already conversant in two languages? Is the workload manageable? And upon graduation, how likely are they to retain both usage and proficiency?
In this vein, both the perceptions and the capacity of students matter in decision-making.
What is more plausible, I suspect, is language education through homes. Consider the fact that one in five marriages in 2015 were between Singaporeans of different ethnicities, an increase from 15 per cent in 2005. Assuming that both parents are each fluent in their second language – an assumption which, as alluded to, cannot be taken for granted – then their children will be exposed to more than two languages. The role of the government, in this configuration, will not be to dictate or compel students to take up an additional language, but to encourage greater parental involvement through the provision of common or subsidised resources, for example. Not only is this approach more organic, but other parents are more likely to be convinced by the benefits.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.