Keeping bilingualism alive for the next generation  

Singapore boasts one of the  most powerful passports in the world. But beyond the physical document, we also hold another equally vital passport that is bilingualism, said  Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing at the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium last month (August 26).  

Minister Chan is right in many ways because being bilingual has helped open many doors, giving Singaporeans a competitive advantage over those from monolingual societies. And yet, the push for bilingualism continues to have its critics, who decry the policy as the culprit behind a mediocre command of languages per se.   

However, the more serious question is, what would Singapore be like without it? Would we have become a global financial hub, a bridge between the East and the West? Or worse, would we remain a segregated society reminisced of colonial times, where language barriers define our opportunities in life? 

As with many of the PAP policies that are long-term in nature, the decision to implement a bilingual education was bold and radical in the 1960s. It was also an astute move, not just at nation-building but ensuring that future generations of Singaporeans are proficient in the global lingua franca while maintaining ties to their cultural heritage.   

“Bilingualism allows Singaporeans to connect with people across countries and cultures while having a sense of confidence of who we are and our place in a globalised world,” noted Minister Chan.  

Today, Singapore has evolved into a majority English-speaking country, an achievement that brings about another challenge – a lower exposure to Mother Tongue Languages (MTL) due to the predominance of English-speaking environments and media. In order to not let our bilingual edge slide, what can we do to nurture a love for MTL amongst our young? 

Fun and authentic learning in and out of the classroom 

That is perhaps why a brand-new Mother Tongue Language Curriculum is on the horizon for primary students next year, announced Minister Chan during the symposium. The new curriculum (designed with the feedback of over 10,000 students, teachers and parents in mind) aims to make learning fun and encourage students to use MTL languages in their daily lives.  

Changes will include greater use of technology such as Augmented Reality (AR) to engage  our digital natives, helping them in word recognition and pronunciation. In addition, a focus on authenticity in learning will see students learning how to order food or write social media posts in their MTL. 

Next, and moving beyond schools, home is another space where children can cultivate fluency in their Mother Tongue. “Bring them to the library, borrow books and read with them,” urged Minister Chan. But what if parents are not too fluent in the language themselves? The power of technology means that resources online are aplenty, one of which is MP Ms Sun Xueling’s (Punggol West SMC) storytelling sessions (in both Mandarin and English), streamed regularly on her Facebook page.  

Bilingual education has long been a cornerstone of our education system. As adults reading this, it has done well at preparing us for a globalised world. We travel around the region, assured with our language skills in both English and our Mother Tongue, to communicate our needs. Therefore, it is only fair that we impart this gift to our children, expose them to their Mother Tongue at a young age and help them see the relevance and joy of using it in their lives. 

Photo Source: Chan Chun Sing via Facebook