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Risk of Extinction of Mother Tongue in Singapore

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From the title, you probably already guessed it right. Mother Tongue is indeed at risk of extinction in Singapore. It is a common sight to see younger Singaporeans speaking English fluently, but when it comes to their mother tongue languages, they face significantly more difficulty in expressing themselves. In recent months, there was an April Fool’s prank by Tropic Monster TV to test youths’ Chinese proficiency in Singapore. Sadly, the majority of youths interviewed failed to even understand the question, which was posed in Chinese. Besides Chinese, Tamil has regressed into a classroom language due to the heavy emphasis on writing than speaking, resulting in declining Tamil proficiency among younger people. This begs the question: What are the implications of this loss of language in youths on the older generations of Singaporeans?

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The Excluded Generation

Most of our grandparents communicate in their own mother tongue languages and dialects. Increasingly, younger Singaporeans are unable to speak their mother tongue languages fluently, which results in a language barrier and a generation gap between grandparents and their grandchildren. Realising this phenomenon, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has launched a video series to promote the use of mother tongue. One of the videos left a deep impression on me. In the video, a young girl is unable to speak Chinese fluently. Her grandfather, who is only able to speak in Chinese, suffers a fall, but as she is unable to converse well in Chinese, she is unable to express her care and concern for her grandfather. Imagine this: Your family gathers together to enjoy a meal. Everybody’s there, young and old. Everyone is talking and laughing, and simply enjoying quality time with the family. You step away from a conversation with your siblings for a moment, a moment that is just long enough for you to see your grandmother sitting silently in the room. She appears to be at the centre of the buzz, but the truth is, that she, as a monolingual Chinese speaker, understands none of the conversations taking place. She smiles at you nonetheless, but there lies a deeper sense of emotional detachment in her eyes. Our bonding and interaction with our grandparents may be greatly limited due to our inability to speak our mother tongue languages, which makes them feel less emotionally connected to the family, because the majority of the conversation is held in English hence preventing them from being engaged in the conversation. Though unintentional, it is inevitable that the elderly feel isolated in the end. Perhaps, seemingly small actions like engaging in a conversation with them in their mother tongue languages will make them feel included in the family.

Loss of cultural identity

The Malay community has a traditional Malay saying, ’Bahasa Melambangkan Budaya’, which translates to, ‘language is the mark of culture’. Language is much more than just a medium for communication; it is art and philosophy. Language carries with it ideas and philosophies unique to the culture where the language originates. In The Analects, there is a saying, 子曰: “三人行,必有我师焉。择其善者而从之,其不善者而改之。”, which teaches us that there are always good things to learn from other people. The Tamil saying,’ எண்ணித் துணிக கருமம்’, meaning to act after due consideration. Each language has its own distinctive traits and values that we can learn from. Although many Singaporeans nowadays believe that the values and teachings imparted by their mother tongue are irrelevant in today’s society, they are still important in preserving our culture, art, and heritage in our modern society as a way of paying homage to our ancestors. Additionally, should we fail to communicate with the older generations of Singaporeans, we may ultimately lose our historical roots found in their collective experiences and stories. It may even be argued that it is these stories and experiences that shape our national identity as Singaporeans.

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We are shaped by the lessons of the past, in a way that illuminates the way forward and gears us for future challenges. To allow these lessons to silently fade away would be to label ourselves fools. Without this common identity to rally upon, are we not then merely a fragmented society? It isn’t just about saving our ability to speak a second language; it’s about saving what makes us uniquely Singaporean. Imagine generations of Malays unable to speak Malay. Or generations of Indians unable to speak Tamil/Hindi. Or generations of Chinese unable to speak Chinese. Perhaps even more importantly, imagine a Singapore without its unique identity. How can we prevent this? By merely changing your mindset to one that mother tongue languages are as important as English. So let’s start today with a little challenge: to speak in your own mother tongue languages with your family!

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Risk Of Extinction Of Mother Tongue In Singapore. (2020, January 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 1, 2023, from
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