Assumptions behind Singapore’s language-in-education policy: implications for language planning and second language acquisition

Topics: Singapore, English language, Language Pages: 21 (10788 words) Published: October 27, 2014
Lang Policy (2009) 8:117–137
DOI 10.1007/s10993-009-9124-0

Assumptions behind Singapore’s language-in-education
policy: implications for language planning and second
language acquisition
L. Quentin Dixon

Received: 30 September 2007 / Accepted: 14 January 2009 / Published online: 27 February 2009 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Abstract Singapore’s officially bilingual education policy, in which the majority of children are schooled through a non-native medium with their ‘Mother Tongue’ (an ethnic heritage language that is not necessarily spoken in the home) as a single school subject only, has resulted in dramatic language shifts in the population and high academic achievement as measured by international comparison studies. Much current second language acquisition theory would predict failure for such a policy. This paper examines the assumptions concerning language planning and second language acquisition underlying the city-state’s language-in-education policy, their relation to current theory in the field, and how the case of Singapore can support or challenge these different theories.

Keywords Bilingual education Á Language planning Á
Language-in-education policy Á Second language acquisition Á Singapore

Widely hailed as an educational success story, Singapore, a multilingual island nation in Southeast Asia, embraces an officially bilingual education policy. English is the medium of all content-area education from the start of schooling, with students’ official Mother Tongue1 required as a single subject. Singapore’s education system has gained worldwide recognition through its excellent results on international comparisons such as the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS; Elley 1992; Martin et al. 1999; Mullis et al. 1999), making it a fascinating case study of government language planning 1

Because these languages are not necessarily the language children learn in the home, in this paper Mother Tongue will be capitalized to indicate the Singaporean usage.

L. Q. Dixon (&)
Texas A&M University, 352 Harrington Tower, 4232 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-4232, USA



L. Q. Dixon

(see Dixon 2005 for a more detailed discussion of the empirical data). Although successful in its ultimate academic results, Singapore’s language-in-education policy rests on assumptions that are not always supported by current theories in language planning and second language (L2) acquisition.

I will address the following questions in this paper: (a) what are the language planning and L2 acquisition assumptions underlying Singapore’s language-ineducation policy?, (b) how do these assumptions reflect current theories in language planning and second language (L2) acquisition?, and (c) what aspects of these theories may be supported or challenged by the case of Singapore?

Background: the linguistic, economic and social context of Singapore Language planning has played an important role in Singapore’s education and social policies since separation from Malaysia in 1965. Singapore is comprised of three major ethnic groups in the following proportions: Chinese 77%, Malays 14% and Indians 8% (Singapore Department of Statistics 2001). These proportions have remained stable since around 1900 (Chua 1964). In 1965 after gaining independence, Singapore chose to become an officially multilingual state, selecting four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil (Pakir 2000). English is promoted as the ‘working language’ of Singapore for inter-ethnic communication, while the other official languages are considered ‘Mother Tongues’ of the major ethnic groups (Rubdy 2001).

Although English was not spoken at home by the vast majority of Singaporeans at independence, the appellation ‘Mother Tongue’ implies that those languages were spoken at home. At independence, however, virtually...

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