Language, Society and Education


Singapore’s linguistic stipulation has witnessed a significant transformation in the past six decades due to strategic planning and enforcement of government policies even before independence in 1965. Due to these policies, many languages came and disappeared. Thus, the country noticed a significant linguistic transformation. Singapore observes a shift towards using English and one more official language, which resulted in attrition of many other languages including a variety of Chinese languages. Currently, Singapore has four official languages English, Mandarin, Malay as well as Tamil that are spoken by 37 percent, 35 percent, 10 percent and 3 percent population respectively (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017). This clearly shows that the country is dominated by English speaking population that is essential in the context of growing globalization and rising demand for English speaking people in the global market (Low & Pakir, 2018).

Singapore is a small island with 62 islets and it truly reflects the concept of “global village” due to its diversity and presence of people of multiple ethnicities. Colonial history and the location of Singapore are two major factors driving diversity in the country (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017). Historically, many people from neighboring locations migrated to the country. Nowadays, the population of Singapore is dominated by three major ethnic groups i.e. Chinese, Indian, and Malay (Low & Pakir, 2018). Diversity of Singapore leads to diversity in language. Various reforms made by the government facilitated the development of a strong education system that promoted the English language. Singapore is one of the successful models of international bilingual education. In the country, children are being taught English along with their native language from the beginning of their primary education. The government implemented a national policy in 1966 that promoted bilingualism in the country. The objective of that policy was to practice a common language across the country while preserving the local cultures of different ethnic communities and their native languages. More than 70 percent of the Singapore population, 15 years and above is bilingual (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017). However, the education system was not flexible and one rule was applicable to all students in 1979. This resulted in the failure of 60 percent of the students in their mother tongue (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014). Over a period of time, the government refined its policies and customized education system according to the needs of people and the globalizing world. Continuous efforts made by the policymaker and systematic utilization of resources and education system helped in making Singapore a successful bilingual country (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014).

The primary objective of this dissertation is to present a detailed analysis of the multilingual profile of Singapore. The paper is divided into two parts, and begins with analyzing diglossia, language maintenance, language shift, and reversing language shift (RSL). Also, this section examines the ways of how languages are organized and patterned in Singapore, and the role played by the education system, families, communities and educational institutes in achieving a shift in the language. The second part focuses on illustrating the language status in Singapore and analyzes the languages that are facing different types of risk due to a shift in language along with the efforts that are required to be deployed in order to reduce those risks.

  1. Literature Review

Globalization has encouraged migration and acceptance of foreign cultures. People, across the world, are now more open to explore different aspects of foreign cultures including food, music, clothes and language. It has also become the need of countries to learn and adapt to global language so that they can do business and promote foreign business activities in their own countries. Governments, across the world including Singapore, have made educational policies for promoting global language i.e. English along with their native languages (Low & Pakir, 2018). There are many countries across the world where two or more languages exist together. However, one can observe different patterns when it comes to the use of language. In some societies or groups, multiple languages exist together, while in others, people keep using their original languages or shift to other languages. For example, in country like India people are comfortable using English along with their native language i.e. Hindi while in Singapore, majority of population shifted to English. 

  1. Key Terminology

Diglossia is a situation where two languages simultaneously exist in a community. Ferguson, in the year 1959, coined the term diglossia and described it as a state wherein different types of languages are used in a community, and all of these have their own role (Ferguson, 1959). Schiffman (2017) argues that diglossia is a sociolinguistic condition. According to the author, the occurrence of diglossia is very common in non-western countries but it cannot be called third-world culture. It refers to the presence of multiple languages in different countries across the world such as Western Europe (Schiffman, 2017).

Bradley & Bradley (2013) in their book describe language maintenance as a phenomenon that occurred when people maintain the use of their native language or the language that they practice in the presence of another stronger language. Valdez (2011) describe how people come in contact with other languages due to various social or professional reasons. In some cases, people get influenced by other languages and start using them. However, in some cases, they do not get influenced by other languages despite the fact that other languages are more powerful and widely used as compared to their own language. This is known as language maintenance. Valdez (2011) describes how the spread of language was facilitated by the invasion and colonization.

Unlike language maintenance, people adopt other languages and replace them with the primary language that they are using for communicating with other people in the process of language shift (Bhatia and Ritchie, 2013). In bilingual or multilingual societies, the risk of language shift is high as people often get influenced by the power of other languages and start adopting that while reducing the use of their native language. Musgrave (2014) describes how multilingualism does not just increase the use of various languages in one community, but it also endangers some of the local languages. The author cites the example of Indonesia where people are multilingual and using a variety of languages even in the presence of one dominating language. Indonesia is a large country with the presence of people from various ethnicities; which makes it a multilingual nation. After World War II, the country was under tremendous pressure to bring uniformity in the language. However, the shift in the language in Indonesia did not occur because people shifted from one language to another, but it occurred because of the change in pattern of multilingualism. This language shift endangered many native languages, used by a small number of people (Musgrave, 2014).

According to Fishman (1991), reversing the effect of language shift and improving the rate of minority languages is called reversing language shift. In the presence of some dominating languages, the use of heritage languages often decreases and sometimes results in the death of heritage languages. Ruiz (2010) opines that it is a challenging task to maintain and reverse language shift, which requires efforts at various levels by the government, society and education system. Fishman says that in migrant societies, where resources to maintain their heritage languages are limited, language shift occurred in three generations. The situation worsens when migrants do not have legal status. In such situations, it is really difficult to save the language or RLS (Fishman, 1991).

1.2 History and Evidence in Singapore

Historically, Singapore is a multilingual society where people used to speak a variety of languages. The country witnessed a drastic shift in the use of heritage languages after independence. Language policies formed by the government motivated people to move away from language diversity to use of four official languages. Before 1953, people used their local languages to communicate (Bolton and Chin Ng, 2014). In the year 1953, the colonial government brought a white paper to promote bilingual education in the country (Bolton and Chin Ng, 2014). The colonial government asked schools to start teaching the English language assignment and also teach math and science subjects in the English language, in exchange the government increased financial aid to those schools. Legislative council gave its approval on white paper and the same was implemented in Singapore in 1954. This decision lead to conflict and riots in the country because students found that candidates studied in English medium will be given preference for jobs over Chinese educated candidates (Cavallaro and Ng, 2014).

During the 1960s, the government took various initiatives to implement bilingual policy effectively; two of them made the English language compulsory in vernacular schools and made it compulsory to learn one additional language in English-medium schools. In 1966, a second language exam was made mandatory in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) (Cavallaro and Ng, 2014). These efforts deployed by the government caused diglossia as people were learning and speaking two languages side by side. Vernacular schools used to teach math and science in English, while English-medium schools taught history and civics in the Chinese language (Bolton and Chin Ng, 2014).

During World War 2, the country was using its heritage language so the local languages were in dominating position. However, after colonization, the British Empire promoted the English language in Singapore through the education system. In 1954 the colonial government introduced English at level 4 and by 1970, most of the students were speaking and writing English (level 5) (Bolton and Chin Ng, 2014). This shows that the English language was gaining popularity and the use of the mother tongue was decreasing in Singapore. English was used by the British government for official documentation. By 1965, most of the schools in Singapore were English mediums. However, schools teaching in other languages such as Malay, Tamil, etc. were also there.

In 1973, the government allocated double weightage to the second language in PSLE in order to promote bilingualism in the country. During the time (1963 to around 1975), the Malay language was made compulsory for the people who were joining public services, and the national anthem of the country is also written in Malay. This was the time of language maintenance when people were using their heritage languages in the presence of a dominating language i.e. English. In 1978, the government formed a team to evaluate the existing education system of the country and findings of that team were presented in a Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 commonly called a GOH report. The report said that almost 60 percent of students failed PSLE exams from 1975 to 1977 in languages (Pendley, 1983). The report also describes that the Mandarin Language was new for the majority of Chinese students because they used to speak dialects at home. Therefore, one format of education did not cater to the different needs of students. The report also states that children are unable to score proficiency in both the languages that they study. The report suggested reforms in the education system and restructuring. 

By the late 1970s, a language shift took place and English dominated the education system. The use of heritage languages was reduced to Fishman’s levels 5 and 6 of the GIDS level. This was the time when the government was required to deploy their efforts to reverse this language shift and preserve the ethnic culture of the country. The government introduced the ‘Special Assistance Plan’ in Chinese based secondary schools to protect culture. In 1987, the government asked all schools to make English their first languages and mother tongue as a second language.

After these efforts, the government realized that the English language dominated other local languages and the language shift was taking place. It was observed that people paid more attention to the English and the use of mother language was decreasing. Fishman (1991) describes the use of Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale to measure the level of a language and its intergenerational transmission from one generation to the next generation. Below given table 1 is showing the GIDS scale.

Table 1: Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale

Source: (Fishman, 1991)

Fishman (1991) created GIDS that describes different stages of a language in a society or country. First three stages reflect the dominating position of a language in a society. To be more specific, stage 1 shows that the language is used at the national level and in a dominating position. Stage 2 shows the use of language at the regional and local level. Stage 3 shows that the language is being used at a local level and in workplaces. Stages 4 and 5 reflect that the use of language has started declining but it is still considered as safe. Stages 6 to 8 show the way it is getting transferred to upcoming generations. Stage 6 shows a condition of language shift because children are learning to speak the language but not using it in writing which means they are using any other language for writing and communicating socially (Lewis and Simons, 2010). Stages 7 and 8 are extremelydangerous for any language because in these two levels the language is not getting transferred to the next generation and the chance of its death becomes very high (Fishman, 1991).

Application of Fishman GIDS on Singapore:

Xish (Minority Language): Tamil (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).

Yish (Majority Language): English (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).

Xmen: Old Indians and few of their children (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).

Ymen: Young working people and children (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).

Below given Table 2 is showing the application of GIDS in Singapore.

Table 2: Application of GIDS in Singapore

Level Description
1 Use of Xish i.e. Tamil is limited to primary schooling, among Indians (as government made it mandatory to learn mother tongue as second language).
2 No use of Xish (Tamil) in local and regional governmental services and mass media (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).
3 No use of Xish (Tamil) in the local and regional work sphere as Indians prefer to speak Yish (English) (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017).
4.a No Xish (Tamil) literacy in full-time state-funded schools with some other teaching via Xish (Low & Pakir, 2018).
4.b Limited Xish (Tamil) literacy in full-time schools funded by the community with some teaching in Xish (Low & Pakir, 2018).
5 Limited Xish (Tmil) literacy in home and in Indian community because even parents are not encouraging their children to speak Tamil (Schiffman, 1994).
6 Only old Indians prefer to speak in Tamil. Therefore, poor attainment of intergenerational informal oracy in its home-family-neighbourhood setting (Schiffman, 1994).
7 Users of Xish (Tamil) are a socially integrated, but they are not ethnolinguistically very active population and they are neither speaking nor transmitting Xish to their children (Melitz and Toubal, 2014).  
8 Old Indians, most vestigial users of Xish (Tamil) are socially isolated and Xish needs to be learnt anew as an additional language (Melitz and Toubal, 2014).

The above table shows that the use of Tamil has reduced to first generation of old folks. Second level generation 1 and 2 are not using and promoting Tamil. The government has made mandatory to learn mother tongue as a secondary language but this step is not helping much in safeguarding the language. The Tamil language in Singapore may extinct in next few decades in absence of any serious efforts deployed by government and community people. It is important to form policies and encourage people to start speaking this language so that this language shift could be reversed and Tamil language could be protected. This is time for government, authorities, and people to come together and deploy their efforts to protect the Tamil language. 

1.3 Importance of Family, Community, and Schools

Family, community, and schools played an important role in promoting their culture and language. According to Gaitan (2012), students learn many things from their family members which helps them in learning their culture and local language. The author cited the example of Latino students who learn their local language at home (Gaitan, 2012). However, the author also cited that parents of Latin students often find it difficult to advocate for their children in schools because of their lack of knowledge of the English language. According to Pendley (1983), during the 1970s in Singapore, a significant change has been observed in the preference of parents towards English-medium schools. Parents wanted their children to study in English-medium schools which adversely impacted other schools and gradually reduced the number of schools that were providing education in local languages.  

Eisenlohr (2008) in their study analyzed how the Hindi language struggled to cultivate in Mauritius despite some efforts made by the Hindu community. Hindi is an ancestral language of Hindus that gradually faded away in the presence of English and French. Very few old folks talk in Hindi but the child-bearing generation understands Hindi. King, Fogleand Logan-Terry (2008) in their study analyzed how language strategies used by the family shape child development and success in school. The study finds out that when parents and grandparents speak a native language at home then children also learn it. The language environment at home impacts children’s success in maintaining their native language and use it in the future (King, Fogle and Logan-Terry, 2008).

Zhou and Li (2003) in their article said that community-operated ethnic language schools for Chinese students in the U.S. helped Chinese immigrants in maintaining their local language and preserving their culture while living in the U.S. (Zhou and Li, 2003). Melitz and Toubal (2014) in their study tried to establish a link between language and economic welfare. According to the authors, a language that is used by the majority of the countries i.e. business language is promoted by the community, parents, and education system because everyone wants to prepare their children for the future. This leads to language shift and requires efforts in order to RLS.

  • Multilingualism in Singapore

2.1 Background

Singapore is a multicultural and multilingual state with a population of around 5.6 million people. The country has around 74 percent Chinese, 13 percent Malaysand 9 percent Indians (Bokhorst-Heng & Silver, 2017). This ethnic representation is almost constant after the freedom of the country. During the 1950s, the country was home to 33 native languages, and Hokkien and Malay were two widely spoken languages. According to the census data of 1957, only 1.8 percent of people were speaking English and 0.1 percent was speaking Mandarin. 48 percent of the population was using Malay and 39 percent Hokkien as their mother tongue (Kuo, 1980). Things now have changed significantly due to the continuously evolving socio-political environment in the country. The economic situation has also evolved and impacted ethnolinguistic conditions in the country. Currently, the majority of the Singaporeans speak English and Mandarin languages.

There is no doubt that highlighted factors such as political and economic impact the process of language maintenance and language shift in Singapore, but the role played by the education system, families, and overall community cannot be ignored. As observed in the literature review that the government implemented several policies to promote English but their goals could not be achieved without the involvement of the education system. The language shift which took place in Singapore society could not happen if families and communities have not tried to pursue the English language. Tannenbaum and Berkovich (2005) in their study analyzed that family facilitates the process of language maintenance. The authors conducted a study on 180 adolescents from immigrants families. Findings of the research study informed that language maintenance in the second generation is positively associated with healthy family relationships and the use of native language at home (Tannenbaum and Berkovich, 2005). Kheirkhah and Cekaite (2015) said that families using minority languages often worry about language maintenance. According to the author, the use of various language maintenance strategies by the families as per larger societal processes and parents’ perspective on external language policies impacts the language acquisition process of the second generation. In Singapore, parents and the larger community did not promote right language maintenance strategies which resulted in putting Chinese dialects and other native languages such as Malay and Tamil languages endangered (Kheirkhah and Cekaite, 2015).  

However, Singapore was able to maintain Malay and Tamil languages at home and language shift among people using Chinese dialects happens because parents promoted English and Mandarin at home, and the same was facilitated by the larger community. People realized that English is a global language, and children who are efficient in English have better job opportunities in the global market. The focus of parents and larger communities were shifted from language maintenance to language shift. The education system under the influence of political parties and the whole social system worked to promote English and mandarin while little emphasis was given to native languages (Wei, 2012). The reducing demand for heritage language learners resulted in the closure of several native language schools. In the absence of proper support, funding, and lower demand, these schools decided to close which further encourage language shift.

2.2Organization of Different Languages in Singapore

Currently, there are four official languages that are used for official communication in Singapore. These languages are English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Malay is considered a national language of the country.

The most popular and commonly used language in Singapore is English. The majority of schools, educational institutes, and offices use this language as a primary teaching medium. Singapore uses British English because the British ruled the country for several years and formed a base for the English language in the country. It was the Colonial government that initially started promoting the English language in the country. English has helped Singapore significantly in developing its economy and build recognition in the international market (Leimgruber, 2013).  Due to the English-speaking population, many companies are investing their money in Singapore. After the colonial government introduced English in Singapore’s education system, it grew rapidly and declined the use of other native languages.

Mandarin is the second most popular and one of the official languages of Singapore. This language was formed by using a variety of Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese, etc. Singaporeans with Chinese origin or ethnicity use Mandarin as their mother tongue. This language was also promoted by the government to bring language uniformity in the country and reduce language diversity. As Chinese is a major population in Singapore, the use of Mandarin is also high in the country (Wei et al., 2011). During the past years, there was a decline in the use of Mandarin. However, the government not only made it mandatory as a second language in the schools but also banned the use of Chinese dialects in the media. A ban on Chinese dialects left people with no other choice but to use Mandarin in their daily lives and also in schools. It helped in promoting their Chinese culture.

Malay language that is used in Singapore is the standardized edition of Bahasa Melayu. Before the invasion of Singapore by the British, Malay was the national language. Script in Malay language is Roman, commonly known as Rumi. In earlier days, Malay was written using the Jawi script. ‘Majulah Singapura’ is also written in Malay and English. This very popular language in Singapore lost its charm in the presence of other dominating languages, and currently, very few people use this language.

As for Tamil, the Indian population accounts for 9 percent of the total population and the majority of the Indians use it as their Mother tongue (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014). Indians who migrated from Tamil Nadu to Singapore speak Tamil at home. This is the reason why Tamil is an official and fourth-largest speaking language in Singapore.

From the literature review and the mentionedlanguage situation in Singapore, it is obvious that English is the most dominating language. Over the years, the use of English is continuously rising and people are using this language not only in schools and offices but also at home.

Below given Table 3 is showing how English and other languages are patterned in Singapore.

Table 3: Main Language Spoken by the People in Singapore at Home (in %)

Source: (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014).

The above table shows the percentage of people using languages at home. It has been observed in the literature review that family, home, and community play an imperative role in maintaining a language and the same is reflected in the above table. The use of Malay has substantially decreased after the invasion of Singapore, but families, parents are trying to maintain the language by promoting it at their home. It can be observed that from 1957 to 2010 the use of Malay language has decreased by 1.3 percent in total population (by 9.6% among Malay population). However, the use of the Tamil language has decreased by 2 percent in total population and by 38.46 percent among Indians. In contrast, the use of English and Mandarin has increased from barely 1 percent to more than 30 percent. A major reason for this language shift is declining to use Chinese vernaculars. An ethnicity-wise analysis will help in analyzing how the pattern of languages has changed over time.

Below given table 4 is showing the use of languages among three major ethnic groups in Singapore.

Table 4: Ethnicity-Wise Use of Languages

Source: (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014)

The given table illustrates that the use of Chinese vernaculars and Tamil has reduced substantially over time, while the use of English has increased. The use of Malay is also reducing but still, the Malay community is able to maintain it. However, Tamil and Chinese vernaculars are dying languages that require efforts from the government, parents, community, and educational institutes. The government has already launched various efforts to reduce the use of Chinese vernaculars and increased the use of Mandarin such as “Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979” and making it compulsory as a second language (Cavallaro and Chin Ng, 2014). Furthermore, the government has made great efforts not to maintain Chinese vernacular languages.

2.3 Endangered Language

In the case of Tamil, public and private schools in Singapore offer classes on Tamil language and the government made it compulsory for all students to study their mother tongue as a second language in primary and secondary schools. Currently, there are 7% Indians living in the Singapore and number of schools offering classes on Tamil are limited (Schiffman, 2003). Tamilcube Learning Center is a private organization that promotes Tamil language learning among the young generation in Singapore. This private organization uses a variety of advanced teaching methods to encourage kids to learn and use Tamil language (Nunamaker, 2019). The organization is working for the past ten years to promote the Tamil Language among elite Indian-Singaporeans. Analysis of literature has shown that the highly educated and working parents promote the use of the English language even at home. Therefore, their kids do not speak or lack in their native language. The same situation is with Tamil. Promoting this language among upper-middle-class will help in increasing the use and in maintaining the language.

Tamilcube deploys modern and interactive methods that encourage kids to get involved in the learning process. The center also uses game-based methods that makes language learning fun. The objective of the center is to reach to all Tamil children residing in Singapore and motivate them to learn Tamil. When parents do not speak Tamil at home or rarely use it, it becomes difficult for the children to learn Tamil just by getting lessons in the school. A positive learning environment at home facilitates the language acquisition process of the student (Li, 2007). The center runs classes for all age groups and children or parents can choose the best option for them. The center is focused on expanding its branches so that maximum number of children could benefit from it.

In Singapore, Tamil people are a group of minorities and they do not have any control over language policies in the country. There are almost no efforts made by the government to protect this dying Language i.e. Tamil in Singapore. Schiffman (1994) opines that Tamil, a tiny minority, does not have any say in policy formulation and they are compelled to work according to the provisions made by a bigger society. The author personally spoke with several Tamil-Singaporeans and found out that this decline is due to mixing English with Tamil. However, according to the author, Tamil is losing its ground because it does not have any territory. A majority of Tamil parents do not speak with their kids in Tamil language (Schiffman, 1994). 

Rajan (2014) states that the declining pattern of Tamil language is a matter of concern for the policy developers, as well as for the curriculum planners. It is important to evaluate pedagogical approaches that raise questions on the relevance of the Tamil language taught in various schools. At this point, it is important to go beyond classroom boundaries and start addressing the needs of young children who want to learn the Tamil language (Rajan, 2014). The language should be promoted as a resource to the people rather than a hurdle. People should be informed about various benefits offered by the Tamil language such as creating a new text piece, reading Tamil texts, and making creative pieces of writings by mixing different pieces of languages. The Ministry of Education (MOE) and Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CIDS) are required to develop curriculum and teaching materials for the Tamil Language, and they should implement it in all schools and institutes with appropriate monitoring. Emphasis should be placed on teaching and learning pure Tamil without mixing it. It is also important to monitor the progress of students continuously on the language so that the end learning goal should be achieved. (Sripathy, 1998) This dying language also needs support and facilitation from family members. Parents should promote the use of Tamil language at home so that their kids do not find any difficulty to practice the language at home and in school.

The analysis of the literature shows that changes in the organization and patterns of languages in Singapore have occurred due to government policies, and the desire of people to learn English, a global language that increases chances of prosperity. The government policies were more focused on bringing uniformity in the languages, and to prepare their population for economic changes and future developments. However, all the efforts deployed by the government brought a language shift in the country which resulted in death of Tamil and Chinese vernaculars. Community members are also more focused on materialistic gains rather than preserving their culture and heritage. Parents and community members are also discouraging the use of Tamil language by not speaking it with their children or the next generations.


The analysis of the organization and pattern of languages in Singapore revealed that the use of languages has evolved significantly in the country over a period of the last 70 years. Historically, before the invasion by the British, two languages used by the majority of the population were Malay and Hokkien. However, During the Colonial government, English was promoted by the government by using the education system of the country and making changes in the educational policies. The ethnic composition of Singapore shows that Chinese people contribute to 74 percent of the total population and the majority of them were using Chinese vernaculars. However, the use of Chinese vernacular increased language diversity so the government brought a uniform language i.e. Mandarin for all Chinese people. The government made use of English and second language (mother tongue) compulsory in all public primary and secondary schools. Government not only banned Chinese vernaculars but also made Mandarin compulsory for Chinese to learn. The analysis shows that over a period of past 70 years the use of Malay, Tamil and Chinese vernaculars has decreased. However, Malay people are still able to maintain their language by speaking it at their homes and transferring it to the next generations. Tamil seems to be disappearing and dying gradually because people are not speaking Tamil at home and it is observed that parents and community are also promoting the English language because of various benefits associated with it.


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