Singapore provides a fantastic case study of how policy can make a difference in individual language behavior. Composed of three main ethnic groups—77% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 8% Indian—Singapore has adopted a multilingual policy that gives four languages—Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English— official status (Bokhorst-Heng & Caleon, 2009). The government has promoted what is known as “English-knowing bilingualism”—all children must learn English plus a mother tongue through bilingual education. Singapore is simultaneously a nation and a city with only about five million people. Its leaders decided early on that knowledge of English was critical for the country’s global competitiveness. But because some feared that dominance of English might undermine the cultural rootedness of its diverse ethnic groups, the government decided to promote mother tongues by integrating them into education.
But the government uses a rather peculiar definition of mother tongue, which is determined by a student’s father’s ethnicity (Mandarin for Chinese, Malay for Malays, and Tamil for Indians) regardless of the language actually spoken by the student at home. For instance, a child who has a Cantonesespeaking father and a Malay-speaking mother is automatically classified as ethnic Chinese and as having Mandarin as her mother tongue even though nobody speaks Mandarin at home (Gupta, 1993). What this does is privilege Mandarin speakers at the expense of speakers of other Chinese dialects.
The government’s pro-Mandarin policy has resulted in a massive shift to Mandarin among the ethnic Chinese, who make up more than three-quarters of the Singaporean population. This is despite the fact that the majority of the Chinese in Singapore do not speak Mandarin as their native language. In fact, many more are speakers of Hakka, Cantonese, and Hokkien, three Chinese dialects that are mutually unintelligible with Mandarin and with one another. But the government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign, started in 1979, has been so successful that whereas only 0.1% of the country’s population spoke Mandarin as a mother tongue at the time of independence, almost half (47%) of the population now use Mandarin at home (McKay & Bokhorst- Heng, 2008).
In addition to the Singaporean government’s emphasis on Mandarin, there is a general preference for English as the language of prestige. Because English is positioned as the language of finance, law, government, education, and higher education, it is also seen as a language of upward social mobility. There is a predominant and near exclusive use of English in high-income homes, in contrast to low-income households which typically use their mother tongue as the dominant household language (Bokhorst-Heng & Caleon, 2009). Since 2000, the government has also started a “Speak Good English Movement” for the population in general, to make Standard English, rather than Singapore’s colloquial English (Singlish), the habitual form of English. The overall result is that what used to be a highly multilingual country is now dominated by Mandarin-English bilingualism (McKay & Bokhorst-Heng, 2008; Romaine, 2006).