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ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-13 (2014-05) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter May 2014

Language Education





“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”


Nelson Mandela



There is no doubt that this quote will continue to inspire generations of language learners despite the recent advancement of statistical machine translation. Before learning more about the latest discovery in language learning and machine translation during INTERSPEECH 2014, the newsletter of this month is dedicated to language education in Singapore.



Brief history of language education


Discovery of the “New World” is sometimes considered as the starting point of globalization. Of course travelers, merchants and scholars didn't wait that long to study languages but, surprisingly, theorization of language education is quite recent. In the 17th century, Latin was commonly used for education, language and religion in the Western countries. Its teaching was almost exclusively done through grammatical aspects until Jan Amos Komenský, a Czech teacher and educator, created a complete course for learning this language [12]. Jan Amos Komenský major contributions also include the invention of the primer and textbook which are now widely used to teach reading and languages.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, research on language education sped up and led to a large number teaching practices which were supposed to improve the experience of language learners. In 1963, Anthony [14] proposed a three-layer hierarchical framework to describe language teaching including approaches, methods and techniques. Approaches are related to general concepts about the nature of languages, while methods refer to the over-whole plan of the language teaching organization which is implemented in class through techniques which aim at achieving short term objectives. Anthony's framework was later extended by Richards and Rogers [15], who especially extended the concepts of methods and techniques to designs and procedures that were intended to be more specific and less descriptive.

Amongst the most popular, the structural methods consider languages through the prism of grammar, functional methods focus more on languages as a vehicle to accomplish certain functions and interactive ones emphasize on social relations such as acts, negotiation and interactions. Of course this list is not exhaustive and do not address the complexity of the whole range of existing methods.



Language education in the world


In Africa, where most countries used to be colonized, language policies strongly depend on the former colonial power and its tolerance of the local languages [16] but also on the post-independence political evolution, on the socio-linguistic contour of each country and on the level of education. During colonization, the French, Portuguese and Spanish used to teach their language at all levels and from the first day of school. The Germans did promote their language while giving prominence to local languages in the first years of schooling and the British conducted the first year of education in the local language before changing it to English in the following years. In some parts of Western Africa, British even encourage the teaching of certain languages such as Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, Ga, or Ewe but kept English as a reference point. After independence, most of the African countries considered reforming education to promote indigenous languages but in a lot of cases, those politics have been questioned as teaching in the mother tongue could weaken the national unity. Of course, it has been easier for the few monolingual countries (Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Madagascar, etc.) to promote education in their native languages while some multilingual countries have chosen to develop regional languages. For instance, Zambia uses six zonal languages in education, Zaire four, and Togo two. For economical reasons, English and French are still taught across the former colonies and are still strong factor of regional cohesion.


Bilingual education in South America mostly refers to the teaching of a “mainstream” language such as Spanish or Portuguese to non-Spanish and non-Portuguese speaking people [17]. It usually follows a “transition” or “maintenance” model. In the first one, the official language progressively replaces the mother tongue while the second one makes use of the two languages through the whole curriculum. Language distribution in South America is mainly characterized by the fact that many populations are located in isolated area where communication and outside contact are poor and thus, monolingualism is prevalent. In this context, a number of countries have launched bilingual education programs in the 1970's. Those programs have provided good results since bilingual education improved education amongst indigenous children.


North America’s modern history includes periods of colonialism too. However, the language education evolved in a very different way and strongly differ between Canada and U.S.. In the 19th century, U.S. was especially friendly towards bilingualism as immigrant communities commonly maintained and published in their native language [19]. Starting from the 1880's, and due to a huge influx of non-English speaking immigrants, English was used to develop an “American” identity. Monolingualism as then become the norm and second language learning is still uncommon before high school. Therefore, only 15 to 20 percent of Americans consider themselves bilingual compared to 56 percent of European (European commission survey, 2006). The most common second languages taught in the U.S. include Spanish, due to the large number of recent Spanish-speaking immigrants, followed by French, German, Latin, Mandarin, Italian and Japanese, in descending order of frequency. As a multilingual country, Canada allows two languages of instruction: English by default and French in the case of “Francophone children whose parents qualify for minority language rights” [18]. Additionally, aboriginal languages can be taught as a second language as all students are required to learn a second language from 9 to 14 years old.


In Europe, all children studied at least one foreign language as part of their compulsory curriculum except in Ireland where instruction includes English and Irish, both considered a native language, and a third European language. In all European countries, English is by far the most commonly learned language before French, Spanish, German and Russian. On average, children start learning a second language between 6 and 9 years old [20]. This age has strongly decreased in the last 15 years and it is now common for children to start learning in pre-school. However, the weekly number of hours spent learning a language did not really increased in the same time. Due to the multilingual context, and in order to encourage cross-border exchanges, the European Union strongly encourages learning of foreign languages and, on average, in 2009/10, 60.8% of lower secondary education students were learning two or more foreign languages. From a local point of view, almost all European countries have regional languages and more than half of the countries use partial immersion to teach both the minority and the state language.


In South-East Asia, 550 millions inhabitants speak hundreds of languages including local (Javanese, Hmong for example), national (Khmer, Thai, for instance) and regional languages (varieties of Chinese and Malay) [2]. Amongst the eleven countries of this region, all except Thailand have endured colonization and been exposed to European languages: Dutch in Indonesia, English in Brunei, Burma, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore, French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and Portuguese in East Timor. After decolonization, most governments used languages to strengthen national cohesion and forge a national identity. All eleven Southeast Asian countries have included English in education, often as a foreign language. In certain countries, however, instruction is given in the national language while sciences and technologies are taught in a foreign language, for instance English in Myanmar and French in Laos.





Under British colonial rule, school systems in the main four languages, namely Chinese Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil, cohabited in Singapore [4]. After World War II, the schools were gradually brought under the control of the government, which decided to establish one of the existing languages as lingua franca to strengthen the national unity. Amongst the possible languages, Malay was considered a good choice given the integration of Singapore to the Federation of Malaya, and Hokkien was already spoken by the majoritys of Chinese Singaporeans. However, the government decided to chose English as it was both a tool for economic development and an ethnic neutral language in the context of Singapore’s multi-ethnic population including Chinese, Malay and Indian.

The bilingual education policy was officially introduced in 1966 with the possibility to teach English as a first or second language. However, schools teaching English as a second language declined rapidly as English was considered a key element for professional success. By 1986, there remained a single class of 28 secondary school students following a curriculum in Malay and Malay-medium schools, came to a natural demise like the Tamil-medium schools in 1982. Chinese-medium schools were removed by the government [4]. The government then officially defined English as the first language and the three other official languages as mother tongues. In a will of preserving the Asian culture in Singapore, the government imposed the learning of the mother tongue as second language. This mother tongue is determined for each student depending on her/his ethnicity. Therefore, Malay Singaporean have to learn Bahasa Malayu, Chinese learn Mandarin while Indian from a Dravidian language learn Tamil. Indian is a special case as non-Vernacular Languages like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu can be chosen as a mother tongue by non-Tamil but the state does not provide teachers in those languages [3]. On the opposite, all Singaporean Chinese have to learn Mandarin despite the various linguistic backgrounds present in the local community. Due to this policy, importance of non-Mandarin Chinese languages strongly decreased in the last 50 years and Mandarin is now the first-spoken language in Singaporean homes. Since 2002, Chinese associations in Singapore propose dialect classes in order to reconnect the population with its Chinese culture and enable the younger generation to talk to elderly [3]. A third language can be learn starting from secondary school for which students can chose amongst Mandarin (for non-Chinese), Malay (for non-Malays), Bahasa Indonesia (for non-Malays), Arabic, Japanese (only for Chinese), French, German and Spanish [4,6].

Although it is one of the reasons of Singapore's exceptional economic success, bilingual policy has been, according to the government itself, a cultural failure. By promoting English as a business and inter-ethnic language, the bilingual policy made other languages less attractive to the younger generation. Additionally, the mother tongues have been taught as discipline while using methods developed for a native language. As a consequence, many Singaporean students don't see the point of learning a language which is not a vector of culture but only a subject of study. Realizing this mistake, the government recently decided to make language learning more interesting and IT-based. For example, language learning through the use of smart phones and on-line computer games [5,10]

From a wider perspective, Singapore is unique in Asia as it has a strong national education system at a moment where other countries massively privatize instruction [11] and also because of the way, probably unparalleled in any other developed country, the state’s intervention changed the people’s language and speech patterns [1].




[1] Language, Society and Education in Singapore: Issues and Trends (Second Edition); S. Gopinathan, Anne Pakir, Ho Wah Kam and Vanithamani Saravanan (Eds.); Times Academic Press, Singapore, 1998

[2] Language Education Policies in Southeast Asia, T Clayton, elsevier









[11] Globalization and Multilingualism in Singapore: Implications for a hybrid identity



[14] Anthony, E. M. (1963). 'Approach, Method, and Technique'. ELT Journal (2): 63–43. doi:10.1093/elt/XVII.2.63

[15] Richards, Jack; Rogers, Theodore (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-00843-3








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