I’ve known lots of non-native speakers of English who speak English fluently. Some of these are friends of mine, some are friends of my family, some were my classmates, some are my students. But is there any pattern to the countries they’re from?
Well, yes. They come from all over the world, but there are three major groups. One is Belgium (usually Dutch-speaking Flemings, not French-speaking Walloons) and the Netherlands; one is Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, extended by courtesy to Finland and Iceland); and one is… well… so far we have languages that are closely related to English (except for Finnish), so there are no real surprises here, but the third region is tiny Singapore, where the ethnicities of the residents are 74% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian, and 4% other: nary an English-related language in the bunch, depending on who is in the 4% “other” category. So what’s up with that? And what’s the official language of Singapore anyway? Mandarin? Nope. English? Nope. Well, see below.
It turns out that there was a wonderful post about this in the Language Log blog the other day. Before we get onto the perplexing ranking of Singapore, let’s look at some real data. Here are all of the top ten non-Anglophone countries in order of fluency of English:
- South Africa (a complicated one, since it’s part Anglophone)
So my personal experience matches very well with actual data. It’s not a fluke, not an over-generalization based on a couple of examples — though I wonder why Belgium isn’t up there. My strong guess is that it’s because the fluent English speakers are all from the Flanders portion of Belgium, so those from Wallonia bring the total ranking way down. Anyway, what’s up with Singapore?
Below are some excerpts from the Language Log post, but do read the entire post, especially the comments — which isn’t something I usually say, but in this case they provide a lot of context as well as a fascinating collection of additional information.
[An article in The Economist] focuses on the inability of young speakers of Sinitic topolects in Singapore to communicate with older persons who are still fluent in these languages:
Their language barrier was the product of decades of linguistic engineering. English has been the language of instruction in nearly all schools since 1987, to reinforce Singapore’s global competitive edge. But, depending on ethnicity, pupils study a second language—typically Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. These are intended, as Lisa Lim of the University of Sydney puts it, to add “cultural ballast” vis-a-vis English. In the case of Mandarin, its acquisition has been reinforced by the government’s annual “Speak Mandarin Campaign”, started in 1979.
Mandarin is a standardised version of the language spoken by the people of the vast plains of northern China. Yet hardly any of the Chinese from whom Singaporeans are descended hailed from there. They came instead from the southern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan, and so spoke different languages: Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka, along with two Hokkien-related tongues, Teochew and Hainanese.
The Speak Mandarin Campaign sought to destroy Chinese Singaporeans’ real mother tongues, first by demeaning them as provincial “dialects” of Mandarin when they are in fact mutually unintelligible languages as different as English, German and Danish. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, who started learning Chinese in his 30s, promoted the now discredited notion that humans have a tightly limited capacity for language: Hokkien and all the rest undermined the official bilingualism by hogging chunks of children’s memories. Further, the great tidier disliked the diversity embodied in these languages and wanted to forge a single Chinese identity—reason enough to foist on Chinese Singaporeans an alien language. Lee also thought that China’s opening promised riches to those who could speak its official language.
On the juxtaposition of these two articles, Fraser remarks:
The English Skills one baffled me. If English isn’t the native language of Singapore then it doesn’t have one in my experience, which in itself is interesting. In the list of 20 countries it is clear what the native language of all the countries are, Dutch, Croatian, Portuguese etc. but it would be wrong to say Singlish is the native language and wrong but for different reasons to state Malay* as the native language.
[*VHM: According to the Constitution of Singapore, the national language of Singapore is Malay.
The other piece reflects a common problem here, loss of topolects but also the poor standard of Mandarin. I was pleased to learn about learn dialect.sg classes in Canto, Teochew and Hokkien. I am planning to go to all!
How do you like that? A country without a functioning national language — though English is the de facto national language of Singapore.