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ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-11 (2014-04) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter April 2014

Multilingualism in Singapore


In September (this year), when attending INTERSPEECH, get ready to experience a stimulating multilingual experience. Every year at INTERSPEECH one can hear many languages from all over the world and meet a number of multilingual researchers. However, unlike other editions of this conference, INTERSPEECH 2014 will be held in a highly multilingual environment. From 2000 until 2007, Singapore was ranked the most globalized nation in the world five times1 considering flow of goods, services, people and communications. Indeed, in addition to the four official languages of Singapore, one can also experience many languages across the five continents in the wet markets and shopping malls of Singapore. What’s more interesting is, for many of these Singaporean, they code switch from one language to another naturally and effortlessly.

To speak or not to speak a language

Multilingualism is the ability to use more than one language. When the number of languages is reduced to two, which is the most common form, one talk about bilingualism. There are many ways to use a language so deciding what are the minimum abilities a person should have to be considered as bilingual is a difficult question. For a long time, linguists have limited the definition of bilingual to individuals who had native competency in two languages. This very restrictive definition, which assimilates bilingualism to ambilingualism has now been commonly extended. In its current interpretation, a bilingual person is one who can function at some level in two languages. Whether functioning consists of reading, speaking or, in the case of receptive bilingual, just understanding does not matter. The degree to which the bilingual subject can interact does not matter either and thus, the ability of asking your way in Bahasa Malayu toward a famous conference venue or reading a map in Chinese Mandarin makes you bilingual (as you read these lines).


Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Amongst the most famous multilingual speakers, is Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century Italian Cardinal, was reputed to speak 72 languages. If you consider claiming to know 72 languages to be a bit too gimmicky, consider this other case of a Hungarian interpreter during the cold war who was able to speak 16 languages (including Chinese and Russian) by the age of 86 [1]. Nevertheless, not all multilingual are hyper-polyglot as being able to learn 12 languages or more is not so common.

The complex mechanism of learning a new language is not clear yet and many questions remain, regarding a possible age limitation or the relationship between already mastered languages and the ease of learning a new one. Nevertheless, before considering learning an additional language you should be aware that this is a complicated process that has many effects. It might of course open your mind to other cultures and ways of thinking, but more importantly, it can deeply modify your brain. Neuroscience is a very active field when it comes to multilingualism. The powerful imaging tools available as well as the observation of subjects affected by trauma have led to a better understanding of the language learning process. Different language areas have been located within the brain and an augmented plasticity of the over-whole structure has been demonstrated for the case of multilingual speakers [2, 3]. Interestingly, the brain structure of simultaneous bilinguals, who learned two languages without formal education during childhood, is similar to that of monolingual subjects. On the contrary, learning a second language after gaining proficiency in the first language modifies the brain structure in an age-dependent manner [4].

Amongst the benefits of multilingualism, it has been shown that it increases the ability to detect grammatical errors and improve the reading ability. In the case of bimodal subjects, who use both a spoken language and a signed language, bilingualism improves the brain's executive function that directs the attention processes used for planning, solving problems and performing various mentally demanding tasks [2].

When it comes to society, multilingualism is the fact of having several languages spoken in a reduced area. Speakers don't have to interact or to be multilingual themselves. This phenomenon is observed in many countries or cities in the world and can take different forms. When a structural distribution of languages exists in the society, one talk about polyglossia. Multipart-lingualism refers to the case where most speakers are monolingual and speak different languages, while omnilingualism, the less common, describes the situation where no structural distribution can be observed and that it is nearly impossible to predict which language is going to be spoken in a certain context. That's the former one that you are going to experience in Singapore.


Multilingualism in Singapore

The city-state of Singapore is born from multi-multiculturalism and multilingualism. No wonder then that the choice of having four official languages was thought to be a central piece of the community harmony. In 1966, considering the lack of natural resources and the dominance of international trade in their local economy, Singaporean leaders decided to reinforce English as a medium of economic development [5]. In 1987, English was officially acknowledge as first language while others official languages were referred to as mother tongues [6]. Singapore's bilingualism is thus described as “English-knowing” because of the central role of English [7].

The success of Singapore is said to be partly the result of the language policy which fueled the globalization process of the Lion City [8]. Indeed, the promotion of English as the common neutral language amongst ethnic groups in Singapore facilitated Singapore's integration into the world economy. On the other hand, predominance of English has raised concerns about the decreasing usage of mother tongues and the demise of traditional cultural values [8].

In the last 30 years, language education has been undertaken by the state as one way to control globalization and to reduce the impact of Western culture that tends to replace Asian culture [8]. The growing importance of Western culture in Singapore is reflected by the shift in home languages towards English. Therefore, to reinforce the Asian cultural identity, Singapore's government has emphasized the learning of mother tongues. This policy is considered controversial to some as it led to the popularity of Mandarin Chinese and Bahasa Malayu at the expense of the loss of many other Chinese and Malay language varieties. It is no doubt a delicate and challenging trade-off between preserving language diversity and enforcing common languages for the convenience of communication and economic development.


Moving away from a language policy stemming from boosting economic development will probably take time. The implicit role of languages in Singapore’s multi-ethnic society can be significant yet complex. However, there is no doubt that Singaporeans consider multilingualism as a major component of their national identity that relies not only on the four official languages. One way to realize that during your stay with us is to ask any Singaporean about her/his language background and to get immersed in the rich diversity of spoken languages in Singapore .



[1] (accessed on 7 April, 2014)

[2] (accessed on 7 April, 2014)

[3] (accessed on 7 April, 2014)

[4] Klein, D., Mok, K., Chen, J. K., & Watkins, K. E. (2013). Age of language learning shapes brain structure: A cortical thickness study of bilingual and monolingual individuals. Brain and language.

[5] 'Interview: Chinese Language education in Singapore faces new opportunities'. People's Daily Online. 2005-05-13. (accessed on 7 April, 2014)

[6] Pakir, A. (2001). Bilingual education with English as an official language: Sociocultural implications. GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY ROUND TABLE ON LANGUAGES AND LINGUISTICS 1999, 341.

[7] Tupas, R. (2011). English knowing bilingualism in Singapore: Economic pragmatics, ethnic relations and class. English language education across greater China, 46-69.

[8] (accessed on 7 April, 2014)

1 A.T. Kearney/Foreign policy globalization index accessed April 3, 2014


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