‘dialects’ wasting ‘important neurons’ needed for Mandarin, English: Lee Kuan Yew

In 1979 Singapore launched its campaign for people there to “Strike Hard Against Hoklo, Cantonese, and Other Languages that Your Government Says Are Puny and Insignificant Because They Have Only Tens of Millions of Speakers Apiece,” er, “Speak Mandarin” (Jiǎng Huáyǔ Yùndòng / 讲华语运动). The city-state has been marking the the 30th anniversary of this with some speeches, such as one a couple of weeks ago by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (Lǐ Guāngyào), now “minister mentor.”

Lee described the situation:

Thirty years ago I launched the Speak Mandarin campaign. [Singaporean] Chinese students learned Mandarin at school. Unfortunately, they used to speak dialects amongst themselves, at home, and with their friends — a variety of dialects.

Here, “dialects” is of course the standard misnomer for Sinitic languages other than Mandarin.

Lee said that he himself was setting a bad example during the 1960s and 1970s by doing such highly irresponsible things as giving speeches in the native language of the majority of Singapore’s citizens. So he stopped all that. And he had the government shut down almost all broadcasts in Hokkien (Hoklo) and other such languages.

Lee said that although he understands “the strong emotional ties to one’s mother tongue … the trend is clear. In two generations, Mandarin will become our mother tongue.”

Actually, no, that’s not clear at all. Rather, a very different trend is apparent. During his speech Lee displayed the graph below, with data taken from surveys conducted by Singapore’s Ministry of Education.

Dominant Home Language of Singaporean Chinese Primary-1 Students (1980 to 2009)
graph showing English in a steady climb from 10% -- all numbers are approximate -- (1980) to 60% (2009); 'Chinese dialects' in steep decline from 1980 (62%) to 1988 (9%) and continuing to decline to only 1% or 2% in 2009; and Mandarin, which begins in 1980 at 28% and quickly tops 60% in 1985, with slower growth until 1988 (69%), after which it enters a steady decline to 39% (2009)

As the primary language of the home for young students, Mandarin has dropped steadily since the late 1980s, while English has risen steadily since 1980, with English surpassing Mandarin in 2004. (Language data for the whole population is more complicated. See, for example, the 2005 General Household Survey.)

Of course the government and Lee recognize this. But they don’t want to fight against English, which is crucial to Singapore’s success. So what Lee is proposing is that parents — both parents — speak Mandarin, not English, to their children.

(I see from my stats that this site gets lots of visitors from Singapore. Can any of you comment on how well you think the public will respond to Lee’s proposal.)

Lee explained in his speech that people have only so many “gigabytes” in their brains to devote to languages.

Though stating that speaking “dialects” in some situations can provide “extra warmth,” he warns that by using such languages: “You are losing important neurons with data which should not be there. And like the computer, when you delete it, it doesn’t really go away. It’s there at the back, and you’ve got to go to the rubbish channel and say ‘destroy.’ And it’s still disturbing your hard disk.”

Thus, those rubbish languages must be destroyed “dialects” must be let go, he said.

On March 8 a linguist at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more…. All it takes is one generation for a language to die.” But even after all these years, with Sinitic languages other than Mandarin fading fast there, this is apparently still no time to be slacking off, as Lee’s principal private secretary, Chee Hong Tat, promptly responded, “It would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin.”

Part of the reason behind Lee’s call, however, is a basic misunderstanding. Setting aside the matters of educating children in a language not native to them and how many languages most people are capable of speaking effectively, the main difficulty with learning Mandarin is not the language itself (especially for those who speak other Sinitic languages) but Chinese characters as its near-exclusive script.

If Singapore is smart about promoting Mandarin, sooner rather than later it will develop a two-track system, with most students studying how to read and write Mandarin exclusively in Hanyu Pinyin, while those who wish become more specialized can go on to study Chinese characters as well. For this to work, Singapore will need to produce plenty of material to read in Pinyin. (A newspaper, for example, would be a must — and one with real news, not just cute stories for kids.) The city-state certainly has the means and motive for this. But does it have the imagination? If it does, most students could save their precious neurons and gigabytes for other things — perhaps even their families’ traditional native languages.

Lee Kuan Yew speech:

Some Singapore blog posts:

newspaper stories:

letter to the editor:


19 thoughts on “‘dialects’ wasting ‘important neurons’ needed for Mandarin, English: Lee Kuan Yew

  1. I travel every month to Singapore, and have quite a few friends and business partners there. Here are a few, non-scientific, observations, taken over the years.

    1/ Decrease of English
    With an alleged 1 million Mainlanders living now in S’pore, the English fluency is decreasing (et tu, Hong Kong?). I have met in the last couple years many Chinese-Singaporeans who don’t speak a word of English, and whose only language is seemingly Mandarin.

    2/ Increase of Mandarin at the workplace
    The “only” languages I used to hear at workplaces were Hokkien, Teochiew, Hakka, and English (with an errant Cantonese speaker or two). Today the lingua franca of offices and shops seems to be Mandarin. Blech…

    3/ Pour 3 glasses of beer into a Singapore-born Chinese…
    …And you get a very talkative Hokkien speaker. Mostly. It seems that, at least for people of my generation (1960s and up), Hokkien is still the lingua franca of socialization. Forget English, forget Mandarin. Bless their souls.

    4/ Cantonese seems really on the decline
    Except for the Malaysian-Chinese, many if not most of whom are Cantonese, many of the Ng, Chan and Wong of Singapore seem to have lost fluency in their home language. What I’ve noticed is that these people instead have Hokkien as their native language.

  2. Wow, that guy must be completely out of his mind thinking his speech (about the brain capacity) has got anything at least remotely resembling the truth in it.

  3. @dda:

    Ng is also a Hokkien last name, no? (黃)

    @pinyin info:
    I don’t really believe the thesis that learning Chinese characters is so burdensome if you are aiming for fluency (partial understanding I agree is very difficult with the amount of time it takes to memorize characters). It at least doesn’t recognize the complexity of the learning process. Educated adults in China and Taiwan probably recognize 5000 characters, and they don’t normally need to learn any more beyond that. Typing much decreases the need to write characters out and recognition is the more important aspect these days.

    I think it would better to characterize the system as having a high barrier to entry. And once you get over the hump, there’s a very interesting benefit–the meanings of the characters are such good mnemonics and hints of the meanings of the word that high schoolers and adults almost never use the dictionary, except for chengyu or for older meanings no longer used. This is in great contrast to educated adults in the English language world. Think SATs, New York Times to a high schooler.

    That said, with technology today, people could fairly easily automatically convert characters to Pinyin (including adding the proper spacings between “words”). Why not implement an RSS news reader that does just that and see if it catches on? If there are differences in readability or picking up what new phrases mean quickly without having to consult a dictionary?

  4. I have always hoped that when Lee Kwan Yew gets really old he will forget how to speak whatever language he learnt after he was ten and revert to only being able to communicate in Hokkien or Hakka or Cantonese (or whatever he started with) and he’ll have to hire people from some other place where they still speak it to look after him. That is what happened to some 1950’s and 60’s Dutch migrants to NZ and Australia. Because they didn’t pass on their language to their children and it ended up that they couldn’t even communicate with them any more. It would be ironic if he ended up a monoligual speaker of the language he had spent all his time trying to eradicate.

  5. Ah, Singapore’s particularly endearing version of linguistic genocide. Lee Kuan Yew (Hakka name perhaps?) is only doing what many in Taiwan would love to do (especially those of a particular political stripe). Thing is, he can get away with it, whereas those in Taiwan who despise the local languages can’t afford the political capital of trying to eradicate Taiwanese (and yes, it’s specifically Taiwanese which they perceive as a threat).

    People scoff when I and others (Johan Gijsen, for one) talk about Taiwanese or Hokkien being endangered. It will be gone in Singapore in a couple of generations – it is already moribund there, though the last vestiges will remain in Singlish. Taiwan and Fujian will follow. From fifteen million Taiwanese speakers to a handful in a hundred years is not inconceiveable, and it may well come much sooner than that. In the case of Taiwan, we will end up with a monolingual society, which will all the poorer for having lost those extra linguistic dimensions.

    Sorry for the less than cheerful comments!

  6. I have heard 18-year olds speaking the Penang version of Hokkien on the podcast. This has a lot of young people who enjoy speaking Hokkien and playing around with the language (just like young people do in any language) so there is one little island of hope for Hokkien, I think. Some people complain that it is somehow “incorrect” but I think if young people are proud of it and use it that is more important than trying to speak “correctly” something that no-one under thirty uses to anyone except their older relatives. I’ve experimented speaking only in Taiwanese for a day even in Tainan and had trouble. Some 16-year olds (two years ago) couldn’t even understand what I was saying. At least they knew I was speaking Taiwanese though…In Amoy some people didn’t even know what language I was speaking!

  7. Nongandwong:

    It would be ironic if he ended up a monoligual speaker of the language he had spent all his time trying to eradicate.

    It’d be a fitting end, but I’m pretty sure Lee’s native language is actually English.

  8. > If Singapore is smart about promoting Mandarin…read and write Mandarin exclusively in Hanyu Pinyin,

    I hate Tongyong Pinyin, it is just a scheme to make peoples minds blurry
    about how to write things in Hanyu Pinyin.

    Likewise, when I see Mark’s long articles in pure Pinyin, I say to
    myself if this stuff spreads then we’ll have a third way to primarily
    write Chinese, Simplified, Traditional characters, and now Pinyin…
    More troublemakers! Lock ’em up. Where’s Generalissimo ‘CKS’ when you need

    And you guessed it, being older than the President of the USA, my brain
    has run out of bytes for learning any more 本土 varieties of Chinese.

    Nope, I am now market oriented 西瓜倚大邊 majority rules, and many of my
    headaches, https://bugzilla.wikimedia.org/show_bug.cgi?id=17794
    “Keep simplifed Chinese characters out of zh-tw please”
    (a ton more there by me) are caused by ‘too many languages’.

    Ah, as far as music goes, http://jidanni.org/me/lyrics.html are the songs I know and I’m not going to learn any more.

    Nope, sorry, we’re closed. (Upstairs here in the Brain department. No cells to spare. Limited Edition brain.)

    > couldn’t even communicate with their children any more.
    For real?

  9. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew’s party has managed to keep hold of parliament since 1958. Thus they can get away with things like this. They may be successful in getting more and more Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of the dialects. But there is one thing that they will never be able to quite eradicate.

    In addition to their Speak Mandarin Campaign, the government has also sponsored a Speak Good English Campaign, aimed at getting rid of the pervasive spread of Singlish through the tiny nation. They’ve not had that much success in getting rid of it.

  10. @James, @dda: Ng can be either Hokkien or Cantonese. As dda, as pointed out, Ng in Cantonese corresponds to Wu in Mandarin, while Ng in Hokkien is Huang in Mandarin.

  11. I don’t think learning dialects can overwhelm your brain. If anything, it could improve your brain capacity (brain plasticity anyone?) and create strong connections in the brain — from code switching, which may lead to better critical thinking skills. In fact, studies have shown that we actually exercise a different hemisphere of our brain when speaking or learning a second language. Brain activation or stimulation is a good thing. Alzheimer’s disease, anyone?

    While his frustration might have come from the “unprofessionalism” in speaking Chinese dialects or “Singlish” in formal settings, hey, it’s a Singaporean culture after all. It should be valued rather than condemned — it makes the country unique. As long as people are educated in English, they *can* — have the ability to — be trained to speak professionally.

    I am definitely not advocating on either side, but I’m just saying that Singaporeans do not need to be “forced” to abandon their dialects. There’re cons and pros, as different people values different things. For example, some people do not care about speaking really wow English — they’re going into Engineering anyways.

    And in response to dda: Singapore and Hong Kong are actually two very different cultures. Most singaporeans are educated in English even in public schools, and many formal documents are generally in English. On the other hand, Hong Kong kids are educated in English only if they go to English schools — International schools, British schools, American schools, etc. In public schools, their classes are in Chinese. Hence Hong Kong people generally do not speak English well, except for those educated in English schools.

    Singapore is a country with four national languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Hindi? I think by that definition, an increase use of any of those language is fine as long as communication can be maintained. Hey, this is what you need to face in a diverse country, but at the same time you enjoy the richness of diversity.

  12. > I don’t think learning dialects can overwhelm your brain. If anything, it could improve your brain

    Yeah well Holmes if I was so smart that what am I doing still here talking to you? I learned too many similar ones and now I have found the only way to stop myself from accidentally speaking the ones not applicable to the Taiwan Area is to fine myself NT$5!

    > but at the same time you enjoy the richness of diversity.

    I bet you also like ROC years. If not, please join my http://www.facebook.com/norocyear .

    As far as
    粵語保衛戰 http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=420335845964
    goes, all I know is Hong Kong youth’s Mandarin sucks right up to today.

  13. I find it really sad that Singapore has decided to eradicate parts of its rich linguistic history in favor of Mandarinization. In this sense they’re following the bad example of France (where practically all the regional languages are endangered) and Italy (where ‘dialects’ are declining) by oppressing vernaculars, but at a worryingly faster pace. I hope languages like Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Shanghainese and Cantonese don’t go the way of languages like Provençal or Quechua. If they do, humanity as a whole will be worse for it.

  14. Pingback: You can pry hanzi from my cold, dead hands! | X in China

  15. @Taffy & @Nongandwong
    >”From fifteen million Taiwanese speakers to a handful in a hundred years is not inconceiveable, and it may well come much sooner than that.”


    The last generation that thought solely in the language is nearly gone. Almost no one below 40 can function solely in Taiwanese for more than a minute or two. The sterile version of Taiwanese now taught in elementary schools will be learnt and forgotten long before students start cramming for the xuécè. Taiwan will be like Ireland without the Gaeltacht in a couple of decades.

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