Mother Tongue-Tied

14 Nov 2017

The dictionary defines ‘Mother Tongue’ as the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood.

What language does your child use at home? Do his or her Chinese, Malay or Indian friends use Mandarin, Malay or Tamil respectively when conversing with their own family members? Or do they use English at home instead?

If the answer to the last question was ‘yes’ and his friends are Chinese or Indian, they are among the 60% of primary school students of their race who speak English at home. These numbers have been increasing steadily over the past decade.

In Singapore, the Mother Tongue subject that students learn in school is determined by ethnicity rather than the language that is actually spoken at home. Otherwise, as you can see from the numbers above, many students would be taking English as both their First Language and Mother Tongue!

There is a lot of focus on doing well for subjects like English, Mathematics and Science. Mother Tongue, unfortunately, often gets neglected and ends up receiving the least attention because it is commonly viewed as being neither useful nor important for one’s success in the future. This, coupled with its lack of use at home, has led to a general decline in proficiency in Mother Tongue among students.

Mother Tongue-Tied
The language a child speaks at home may be different from what they use in school.

Why Mother Tongue Is Important

There are many reasons why we should keep an eye on the problem of the decline in the overall proficiency in students’ Mother Tongues.

At the Primary level, the top students tend to get similar scores for English, Mathematics and Science. As a result, Mother Tongue often becomes the most significant contributor to the difference in the students’ aggregate scores. At the Tertiary level, the Mother Tongue grade is taken into consideration for admission into the institution.

Academics aside, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil are symbols of our links to our respective cultural heritages. It is one of the ways by which our cultural identity is preserved. Imagine visiting the countries our forefathers came from and being unable to speak in our supposed Mother Tongue with the natives. What a shame that would be!

In cosmopolitan Singapore, being proficient in more than one language has long been part of the Singaporean identity. Indeed, Singapore is regarded as the bridge between the East and the West because most of us are able to speak English and an “Eastern” vernacular.

Books written in your child’s Mother Tongue can help to increase his or her interest level in the language.

Mastering Mother Tongue

Many students regard Mother Tongue as simply a subject they have to pass and shun the daily use of the language except during Mother Tongue classes. To truly master the language, students need to develop a love and appreciation for the beauty of their Mother Tongue.

On your child’s next trip to the library, encourage him or her to pick up a book written in their Mother Tongue. Not only will this widen their perspective of the world out yonder, it also strengthens their sense of cultural identity and make them proud of who they are.



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