The importance of nurturing bilingualism – from the former Prime Minister of Singapore

Nurturing a key advantage” (Fri, Mar 20, 2009 The Straits Times) is an article on the importance of encouraging multilingual skills in children from a luminary in Asia, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore. The views expressed in it, show the farsightedness of the visionary leader of the small Asian nation that is today renowned for its economic wealth as well as its world-class educational policies and school system. His views are also pragmatic, practical and peppered with first-hand tips about the challenges of raising bilingual children and on the importance of role-modeling by parents, for example:   

“To keep a language alive, you have to speak and read it frequently. The more you use one language, the less you use other languages. So the more languages you learn, the greater the difficulties of retaining them at a high level of fluency…

English is our dominant language. Most students will have little difficulty in mastering working-level English. However, if parents speak in English to their children at home, learning Mandarin will be a problem. Research of American-born Chinese disclosed that when these second-generation Chinese try to learn Chinese in college, those who speak English at home found mastering Chinese as difficult as Caucasian-Americans; those whose parents spoke to them in Mandarin easily made the grade. My advice is for both parents to speak Mandarin to their children if they can. If one speaks in Mandarin and the other in English, the child will grow up speaking more English than Mandarin.”

Finally, he states with ease what seems to be a given in the nation (the benefits and importance of multilingualism) but which Japan still has great difficulty coming to grips with.

“English is the key language for our people to make a living. It is the second language of all non-English-speaking peoples. Multinational companies use English. Internet data banks are mostly in English. PRC Chinese are learning English with great effort. If Mandarin were our first language, Singaporeans would be of little use to China. They do not need more Mandarin speakers. English gives us easy access to English-speaking societies and the developed world. Thus, Singaporeans bring value-add to China.”

Japan has lost decades debating on the need to introduce English language learning into its curriculum, only showing national (ministerial )resolve this year to push through English education in its public schools. Having dithered over the “to introduce…or not to introduce English education question”, it now faces serious obstacles to implementation: lack of cash funding, teaching talent and the huge delay in curriculum development. On bilingualism, Japan is light-years behind most of Asia.

Read the entire article at Asiaone.

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