Tamil Language Policy in Singapore:

the Role of Implementation.


H. Schiffman

South Asia Studies

University of Pennsylvania


Published in Viniti Vaish and Liu Yongbing (eds.)
Language, Capital, Culture:
Critical Studies of Language in Education in Singapore.

Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.





Introduction. The question of language policy implementation is one that is typically thought of as problematical in some way—sometimes referred to as the ‘Achilles’ Heel’ of language policy—since the failure of a language policy to have the outcomes that language planners wish can often be attributed to poor implementation of the policy.  Frequently, language policy makers are novices at language planning, and tend to view it as something that can be, or should be, easily implemented[1]--a few ‘broad strokes’ to give the basic outlines of the policy, and one is done.   I however tend to see implementation as the most problematical area of language planning, since it involves many details—deciding on concrete steps, the allocation of financial resources,  devising timetables for completion, evaluation and cross-checking—and it may also involve a ‘long view’ of the process that may not outlast the impatience of politicians seeking ‘quick fixes’ for a problem.   As far as the implementation of language policy in Singapore is concerned, especially as it concerns the Tamil language, I have recently come to the conclusion that many of the problems with Tamil language maintenance have to do with problems of implementation, and not with other issues.

Language Policy in Singapore.  Language policy in Singapore is well-documented, and for scholars familiar with bilingual education, the system needs little or no introduction. I characterized the situation of Tamil in Singapore in a previous study as follows: 

‘The Singapore educational system supports a well-developed and comprehensive bilingual education program for its three major linguistic communities on an egalitarian basis, so Tamil is a sort of “test-case” for how well a small language community can survive in a multilingual society where larger groups [Chinese and Malay] are doing well. But Tamil is acknowledged by many to be facing a number of crises; Tamil as a home language is not being maintained by the better-educated, and Indian education in Singapore is also not living up to the expectations many people have for it. Educated people who love Tamil are upset that Tamil is becoming thought of as a “coolie language” and regret this very much. Since Tamil is a language characterized by extreme diglossia, there is the additional pedagogical problem of trying to maintain a language with two variants, but with a strong cultural bias on the part of the educational establishment for maintaining the literary dialect to the detriment of the spoken one (Schiffman 2003:105).

Implementation and Language Policy.  Implementation in language policy consists of the measures (plans, strategies, timetables, mechanisms…) that provide the authoritative backbone (including financial rewards and resources) to achieve the goals of the language policy, and the motivation to use the language by the people affected. Some people refer to this as ``Carrot and Stick", the ‘carrot’ being the rewards and incentives, and the ‘stick’ being the enforcement:  the disincentives or penalties.   Implementation may also be highly dependent on funding, which is always a sticky issue. In study after study of language policies, various scholars point out that no matter how benign or enlightened a language policy may be in its form, it needs to be implemented carefully or it will certainly fail to achieve the outcome its planners intended.  Implementation is then simply the plan by which a policy is to be put into practice—the steps that will be taken, the bodies or organs of the state that will take these steps, the resources (funding, publication, whatever) that are available for the policy, and the timetable or calendar according to which various aspects of the plan will be expected to take effect. Carefully constructed policies may also involve evaluation, i.e. a way to check periodically to see if the policy is being implemented as planned, and if not, what measures can be taken to rectify the shortcomings. 

Review of the Literature. The literature on language policy implementation is vague and somewhat dispersed;  much of it is embedded in more general studies of language policy, and there are also some differences in  emphasis, such as whether the policy and planning have to do with the corpus[2] of the language or its status in a particular society.  The task of studying problems of implementation can also be made more complex by the fact that language planning bodies or others concerned with language policy often confuse corpus planning and status planning.[3]   Studies of the ‘problem’ of implementation seem to boil down to two issues, both involving motivation: the reluctance of people (organizations, their staff members, officers of the government…) to carry out the mandate they have been tasked with, and the reluctance of speakers of particular languages to accept the conditions that planners have specified for their community.  Studies of the former (the organizations) are more numerous than studies of the latter (members of the linguistic community), but it is the latter that is at issue in the Tamil situation in Singapore. The most useful studies for our purposes are Grin 2003, who looks at language policy implementation in the European Union; Cobarrubias and Fishman 1983 contains a number of studies—Cobarrubias 1983; Haugen 1983, which focuses on Norway; Barnes 1983, on the implementation of the use of Putonghua and PinYin in China, and Lewis 1983, on the implementation of language planning in the former Soviet Union. 

Fierman 1995 looks at implementation problems in Uzbekistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while Daoust-Blais 1983 (also in Cobarrubias and Fishman 1983) details the complex issues of the implementation of status changes in French Canada. In most of these studies, the issue involves a change in status of a language that has not been used for certain functions, but subsequently is called upon to be used in additional domains, usually because of some mandate from a higher authority, rather than simply because its speakers wish to change something. In other words, this is mostly top-down change in status. As Daoust-Blais details, the Canadian federal government mandated status changes for French, but it fell to the government of Québec to make these changes happen in that province, and in provinces in English Canada where there was no popular pressure to do so, changes did not occur.

But as she also points out, mixed in with the status issues were corpus issues, which involved perceptions about what kind of French should have the higher status being legislated, and ideas about what was ‘good’ French (or what kind of French deserved to be given high status) often involved perceptions that Canadian French was ‘low’ in status, and metropolitan French was higher. Thus, corpus issues can not always be divorced from status issues. Mackey (1983) also pointed out the problems the Canadian government experienced in attempting to change the ‘basic geolinguistic equation’ by using what he refers to as ‘behavior-modification’ techniques, which largely failed.

Here was a government which, in the early 1960s, set out to prevent the country from splitting into two nations.  And it did so by legislating the status of French in Canada to a position equal to that of English, and of placing the implementation of the language policy over all other priorities of the federal jurisdiction. Because of the limits of their jurisdictions however the success of the language policy had to depend on whether the rest of English-speaking provinces would follow suit. None of them did. (Mackey 1983:198).

Theva-Rajan (1995) similarly recounts the many failures to implement the 16th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution,[4] whereby Tamil became a ‘national’ language. Again and again, provisions allowing the use of Tamil for various purposes, including in Parliament itself, failed because inadequate resources—clerks and interpreters trained in Tamil, provision of Tamil typewriters, and just plain foot-dragging, buck-passing, finger-pointing and obfuscation—stymied the implementation of this linguistic right.

In the early days of language planning, it was pointed out by some authors that implementation was or would be a problem, but when one looks for studies that demonstrate the success or failure of implementation, they are few and far between.  It is easier in fact to find, in hindsight, indications of failure, so the literature on the early years of language policy in independent India (Khubchandani 1983, Schiffman 1996), point to the shortcomings of implementation as the reason for India’s disastrous language policy failures in the mid 1960’s, including violent resistance to the imposition of Hindi. Khubchandani, in fact, reveals  a general cultural lèse-magesté in Indian governmental planning, such that many policies are weak in this area. 


A different perspective is provided by Grin (2003), who cites Fishman’s graded intergenerational disruption scale (GIDS; Fishman 1991) as a metric by which we can evaluate the linguistic vitality of a minority language, and then points out that conditions have to be met if a minority language is going to be used by its speakers.  Though Grin is focusing on regeneration or reviving a language (especially minority languages within the European Union,  rather than on maintaining a language that is somewhat threatened), we can readily see from the conditions that he lays out that the Tamil language in Singapore, spoken by about 60% of the Indian population, which itself represents about 7% of Singapore’s population, is in a very precarious position, and one of our tasks here will be to determine whether mere ‘fairness’ or ‘equal treatment’ under the law in Singapore is enough to keep Tamil alive, given the huge preponderance of Chinese speakers on the one hand, and the option of English on the other.


Status and Corpus. In the Tamil case, in Singapore (as well as in India or elsewhere)  the linguistic culture favors the notion that if any kind of Tamil should have high status, and be used as one of Singapore’s official language, Literary Tamil[5] is the variety that should have this status, and the spoken Tamil (ST) that children speak at home and bring into the classroom does not deserve the status. Thus, issues of corpus and status are inextricable in Singapore (or indeed wherever Tamil is used), and the implementation of a language policy involving Tamil involves both kinds of planning, although the tendency is to focus on the corpus and not the status.[6]

The fact that the language policy toward Tamil is in some sense anti-Tamil is totally ignored by those who control what kind of Tamil will be taught, i.e. the Curriculum Development Board, controlled by the Ministry of Education. This policy is anti-Tamil because it denigrates the home variety, which is the actual ‘mother tongue’ of the Tamil community[7], and attempts to replace it with a variety never used for authentic communication by Tamils anywhere. I have detailed elsewhere (Schiffman 2003) what kinds of injury this excessive purism does to Tamil language maintenance in Singapore, because of what it does to the perceptions of Tamil speakers about their language competence, and what ‘mother-tongue’ language study is for in Singapore.  In case after case, students and others interviewed about this variety declare it to be totally useless, of no economic value, and in many cases, of no value whatsoever—it is seen merely as a hurdle to be overcome in the process of gaining entrance to higher education in Singapore.[8] It is safe to say that younger Tamils have no sense of ‘ownership’ of the Tamil language, since they cannot use it in creative ways, such as to coin new terminology the way speakers of English can and do.  Puristic corpus regulation, as I have tried to show (Schiffman 2003) shuts down certain natural avenues of word-formation processes used universally by other natural languages[9], and allows only word-formation by combining ‘native’ roots with suffixes, usually also involving loan-translation.  Thus natural vocabulary development such as Tiivii or paDapoTTi for ‘television’, are disallowed, and only loan translations (tolaikaaTci or tolainookki) are permitted. The latter are also ‘top-down’ constructs, involving no participation by actual users of the language, and therefore used by no speakers of the language except officials in the broadcast media.[10]

The failure of implementation. Why then do I see this as a failure of implementation, rather than a failure of some other aspect of language planning? Implementation is the hardest element of language planning because it involves anticipating unforeseen difficulties and working out solutions to them, once identified.  As with language planning in general,  the attempt to make Singaporeans bilingual in English and their ‘mother tongue’ has had unintended consequences, and one of these is surely the consequence of language shift (to English) which is found to some extent among all mother-tongue communities in Singapore.[11]  Given the high economic value of English, and the lesser value of other languages, this is not surprising; but this tendency has been evident for some time, and little has been done to try to rectify it.  It is often condemned as a failure of ‘will’ among the younger generation, and surely motivation and attitude are part of the problem. Since mother-tongue education is used for ‘moral’ education, failure to embrace the language can be seen (by some Singapore Tamils) as a moral failure[12].  Whether or not this is the perception, there is at best a failure of will—a perception (by younger Singaporeans) that the policy is useless, that they have no ownership of the Tamil language, and that therefore they have no stake in it.[13]   But instead of condemning them for their lack of ‘love of the language,’ perhaps some measures could be taken, or could have been taken, to rectify this. Failure to do so, and to simply issue condemnations, is therefore a failure of the policy, because it means that an unintended outcome is being ignored, and corrective measures are not being taken.  This is clearly a failure of implementation, therefore, since implementation involves among other things, doing periodic evaluations—checks to see how the policy is working, and if it is not working as planned, to make course corrections.  Of course the policy of focusing on a puristic standard has meant that some students do obtain 5 A-level passes, but this misses the point of language maintenance. 

My assessment of the value of stakeholders’ views has been reinforced by my recent discovery of the work of Tom Tyler, a psychologist who, together with his associates, studies policy-making from the point of view of the degree to which participants in various situations assess the fairness of a policy. Their assessment of fairness is based largely on their perception of whether they have adequately participated in the construction of the policy (Lind and Tyler, 1988; Blader and Tyler, 2000; Tyler, Darley and Messick 2001 ).  Tyler and his associates’ research on policy participation and policy success shows that individuals tend to perceive that policies are fair, not if outcomes of the policy are fair and equitable, but whether they have been adequately consulted in the process of constructing the policy.  As he puts it (Tyler 2001)

            Recent studies conducted within political, legal and managerial organizations suggest that authorities can gain deference for their decisions by making these decisions in ways that people will judge to be fair. […] Thibaut and Walker [1975] originally encouraged the study of procedural justice because they felt it suggested a way for authorities to bridge differences in interests within conflict situations and create decisions that all parties to a dispute would willingly accept. This hopeful, optimistic vision of the power of procedural mechanisms has been supported strongly by research findings. (Darley, Messick and Tyler 2001:5).

This research has been carried out in a number of different organizations, both governmental and for-profit, and my discovery of this work caused me to begin to think of its ramifications for language policy formation. The term ‘gaining deference for decisions’ means  that stakeholders ‘buy into’ the policy and cooperate with it, increasing its acceptance and effectiveness. My first reaction to this is that very few polities consult with the speakers of their language(s) when they set about to formulate their language policies, so language policy formation is somehow exceptional in this regard.[14] Even in societies where language policy formation is thought of as more ‘democratic’, the policy rarely involves consultation, so language policy formation seems to involve a ‘father knows best’ kind of approach.  Policies range themselves along a continuum from more democratic (i.e., perceived as fair, even if not consultative) to less fair and more autocratic (and definitely not consultative). The latter type is typical of France, the former Soviet Union, and some others,[15] though France and the former Soviet Union differ on whether minorities see the policy as fair, since Soviet policy empowered linguistic minorities, whereas French language policy disempowers them.  

Singapore is certainly an example of a polity where language policy has been constructed from a ‘top-down’ perspective, with little or no consultation with its citizens, i.e. the parties involved. Singapore Tamils, when asked about the policy, however, generally state that the policy, as far as it applied to Tamil, is a good one, because in contrast with, for example, Malaysia, where Tamil has no official status, Singapore’s policy seems generous and well-intentioned.  Singaporeans from all mother-tongue groups seem to think that the language policy is fair. Each community—Chinese, Malay, Indian—is treated in a fair and equal way, even though the numerical imbalance of the population groups tends to work against certain kinds of fairness in outcomes.  Furthermore, since the place where the policy is most obviously enacted is the educational system, Singaporeans tend to think that their school system appears to try to handle the language situation fairly. They therefore conclude that this makes the implementation of the policy seem fair.  Why, then, do Singapore Tamils not like the outcome, if it treats all mother-tongue groups equally? Perhaps the answer lies in the kind of conclusions Tyler is drawing—that the policy has been constructed without input from the stakeholders, and the values they hold about the usefulness of the languages they are offered. In Bourdieu’s terms, there is a difference in the ‘cultural capital’ attributed to the various languages involved, and for Tamils, English has the cultural capital they value, and Tamil does not. (Bourdieu 1982).  As he points out, people see language as a tool that allows them to improve their lifestyle, obtain a better marriage partner or a better job, and policy as handed down from above has little to do with the decisions they make—their main motivation is economic, and this is what young Tamil speakers will also say.

The goal of this paper, then, is show that the implementation of language policy is actually more complex than it appears to be at first glance, and the problems with the Tamil language in Singapore—mainly seen as a problem of language maintenance—are actually problems of implementation.   I will try to tie this in with Tyler and his associates’ discoveries about what makes policies actually work, or appear to work, which he and his colleagues show to be something of a psychological or motivational issue, rather than being merely an issue of incentives and disincentives, especially of the financial kind. It is also clearly a ‘cultural capital’ issue, in the sense that Bourdieu describes.

Status and Corpus Planning. One must, as we have already mentioned,  distinguish between status planning and corpus planning; some of the early literature on language policy implementation (e.g. Haugen 1966) focused on planning for the ‘corpus’ (the form of the language) rather than on status, and the search for studies of implementation of status change has resulted in few useful resources.  As already mentioned, various polities often tend to confuse corpus and status planning, or fall back on one when energy for the other is what is needed. Thus in France, for example, there is a tendency to see the ‘defense’ of the French language as the defense of the purity, orthography, or lexicon of the French language, rather than as measures that might reinforce the status of French.[16] Tamils in Singapore, as I have indicated elsewhere, also fall back on corpus concerns since the status of the language does not seem to them to be under the control of the Tamil community—it is determined by the Singapore government, which has left the corpus issues to the Tamil community, which then devotes all its energy to battling issues of lexical purity.  Thus even in India, where Tamil has no status problems in Tamilnadu, Tamils still rail against the invasion of Hindi and the corrupting influence of Sanskrit, which are corpus issues, not status issues. This mania about corpus policy may have carried over to Singapore, since Singapore Tamils tend to do what Tamils know how to do best—the care and feeding of ‘pure’ Tamil.

Successful Implementation. A language policy can be seen to be carefully implemented if laws are passed to make the language ‘official’, and beyond this if steps are taken to teach and use the language in education, to appropriate funds for schools, for the training of teachers, for the publication of textbooks; and if a switch-over from one language to another is planned, a timetable according to which the switch is to (gradually) take place. There may need to be an authority that oversees this, with carefully-trained personnel who keep track of the implementation. Evaluation, in this system, might involve checking to see if the policy actually produces bilinguals (if bilingualism is the goal), or biliteracy (if that is the goal).  As Daoust-Blais points out (1983:216) attempts to change the status of French in Canada from the original legislative attempts in 1961 became more and more focused on status as time went on, and each successive piece of legislation to promote French in Québec was more status-oriented, shifting from focus on personal status to one of territorial status, from bilingualism to French monolingualism, from providing incentives to becoming actually coercive.


 As Eastman (1983) has pointed out, language planning is necessarily future-oriented, meaning that plans are made in the present for certain things to be accomplished in the future.  If plans are not made, or if funds are not made available, and if teachers or administrators or school boards are not held accountable for sticking to a timetable, language policies will fail to be implemented.[17] 


Carrot and Stick.  Typically, implementation involves having both incentives built-in to a policy which will reward people in some way for following the plan in question, and also disincentives (or punishments) when the plan is not followed.  This is known popularly as ‘carrot and stick’ and it is well-known that some people follow a plan if they see that there are rewards in it for them personally, while others require some kind of punishment or disincentive if they do not follow the guidelines.  Many citizens of a society are law-abiding, and will stop their car at a stoplight at 3:00 a.m. even when nobody is watching, and no other traffic is approaching; others need to be constantly watched so that they do not violate the law.  Tyler et al.’s work, among others, shows that if people believe rules and regulations are fair, especially if they perceive that they have been arrived at in a fair and impartial manner, they will support them and follow them, and will not require disincentives.  Rewarding them in some way may also help, and for some people the ‘carrot’ is more important than the stick.  But if policies are not seen to be fair, and if rewards and incentives are not present, people will not do their part to see that the policy is carried out, and policies will then fail.  In other words, stakeholders have to cooperate with policies in order for them to succeed, and this is what is often lacking in more authoritarian policies.  People can pay lip-service and pass the buck (Theva-Rajan 1995) but actual cooperation is more difficult to elicit, unless, as Tyler et al. show, citizens perceive the policy to be fair.


Thus if a policy decision involves changing which language is to be used for various purposes or in various domains in a particular polity, such as the attempts begun in Canada in the 1960’s to put French on a more equal basis in all of Canada’s provinces (and not just the traditional French-speaking provinces), teachers and government servants at all levels need to see the fairness of this policy in order to make sure that it is implemented. If not, the policy will fail, or will take longer to implement.  One of the incentives that has worked in Canada, but was surely not one that was planned, was that middle-class English Canadians began to see the advantage of having their children enrolled in ‘French Immersion’ classes, which led, at least among this level of Canadian society, to a greater acceptance of the French language in all of Canada’s provinces (Lambert 1960)[18]. French immersion was seen by these people as a kind of ‘perk’ or ‘feather in the cap’ that gave them and their children certain psychic rewards, as well as down-to-earth rewards, such as smaller classes, special status, more parental involvement, and so on, at very little cost to them. Since not all children succeed in immersion bilingualism, success in the system delivers certain psychic rewards not available to parents whose children are successful.[19].  Immersion bilingual education accords high status to the families that participate, and at very little cost.[20] But this psychic reward has not been enough to make bilingual education an across-the-board phenomenon in all of English Canada, so acceptance of bilingualism across the board remains an elusive goal.


Problems of Implementation.  As should now be obvious the point of this paper is to show that implementation in language policy is its weakest element, and that implementation has many hidden pitfalls. It is also my goal to show that the problems with implementation of mother-tongue programs in Singapore, especially those for Tamil, are problems that have arisen because the policy contains assumptions about bilingual education that have not been tested[21], because they are believed by policy-makers to be true, and if they actually had allowed for testing and evaluation of the policy as implemented, they would perhaps have different outcomes.


It is one thing for a policy on, say, immigration, controlled substances,  or foreign monetary transactions to have problems, and for there to be swift and effective measures taken to solve the problem. If someone is violating the rules, they can be rounded up; foreign banking transactions can be monitored through bank records, or electronically.  And governments generally entrust these issues to people trained to deal with them. But with language policy, often enacted or formulated by novices, how shall language policy violations be dealt with?  In Nazi-occupied Alsace during World War II, people who spoke French in public were deported to the 'interior' of France, and Québec is famous for its ‘language police’ who look for violations of the language laws?  The easiest (though not perhaps the best) way to control language policy, it turns out, is to use it as a barrier to educational advancement—control access to university by standardized test scores, such as the Cambridge A-levels, or the American SAT’s.  Thus if people fail the tests, they should be content to accept lower status jobs that do not require higher status education. 


Unwarranted Assumptions.  What are some of the unwarranted assumptions that underlie language policy in Singapore, and why are they problematical?  The most obvious are the following:


1.      The assumption that omniscient leaders can make decisions about language policy, without much consultation with citizens, teachers, or any other interested parties, about their needs and desires. 

2.      The assumption that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy will work for a small minority like the Tamils as effectively as it will work for the dominant Chinese-descent group. That is, if the policy is working for larger groups, and they are happy, the small ones should be happy, too

3.      The assumption that Singaporeans are monolingual, or have only one ‘fixed’ mother-tongue, and that it is something other than English.

4.      The assumption that teaching ‘moral’ education through the ‘mother tongue’ will result in the retention of ‘indigenous Asian moral values’ and stave off undesirable western values, which would otherwise inundate Singapore society if English were used for moral education.

5.      The assumption that separating bilingualism by subject matter, and teaching ‘hard’ subjects (math, science, etc.) in English, and ‘soft’ subjects (‘moral’ education, literature) in the ‘mother tongue’ will result in balanced bilingualism, and not language shift. 

6.      The assumption that exonormic standards for all of Singapore’s languages can be used with impunity for language maintenance purposes, and that there is no need to bolster the domains of L-variety languages.

7.      The assumption that L-variety languages have no value as a resource to underpin the teaching of H-variety (exonormic) standard languages, and can be (in fact should be) ignored.

8.      The assumption that Singapore identity is associated with some ineffable ‘higher’ values transmitted by the mother-tongue, instead of residing, for most younger Singaporeans, in the less prestigious Singlish they all know.[22]


The first assumption above may be among the more controversial, so let me give examples from Lee Kuan Yew’s chapter in his recent autobiography[23]: 


From Chapter 11 “Many Tongues, One Language.”


·        “Not wanting to start a controversy over language, I introduced the teaching of three mother tongues, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, into English schools.  […] To balance this, I introduced the teaching of English in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil schools.” (p. 146). 

·        I left the Chinese representatives in no doubt that I would not allow anyone to exploit the Chinese language as a political issue. That put an end to their attempts to elevate the status of the Chinese language.” (p. 147).

·        “After I deported the Malaysian leaders of the two demonstrations, student agitation diminished.” (p. 147) 

·        I decided to make English the language of instruction at Nantah.” (p. 150)

·        “After the two universities were merged, I made all Chinese schools switch to English as their main language of instruction, with Chinese as their second language.” (p. 152).[24]


And so on:  the first person pronoun “I” is the dominant pronoun here—not “I consulted with X and with Y” or “We decided to allow X and Y to vote” but “I did this and I did that”.  My claim that language policy decision-making is autocratic and ‘top-down’ is based on this kind of statement.  I am not claiming that it is dictatorial or Stalinistic, or that opponents to the policy were locked up, or deported,  (although he does say he deported Malaysian leaders), but that there was not much consultation then, and the consultation that does take place now is behind closed doors, rather than in an open consultative way, as discussed by Tyler.



As for the rest, I consider these assumptions to be unwarranted, or at least unverifiable,  because they seem to be fundamental to Singapore’s language policy without any evidence given for their being true. In academia, we do not believe claims made in published research unless evidence is presented, based on empirical investigation. As I point out below, German-American church groups in the 19th century US had similar assumptions, also untested, about the value of using German to teach religious subjects, a strategy designed to maintain German as a language of religion,  but which turned out to be untested and unverifiable.  Instead of resulting in bilingualism, this policy resulted in language shift.  In 19th century America, with no research on bilingualism to consult, one can understand why such a mistake might be made; in the 20th century, there was less of an excuse.  Underlying all of these assumptions is the one that assumes that language policy can be formulated by people with little knowledge of how it works, and that the desired outcomes will result. 


From studies such as Gopinathan et al. (1994, 1998) we can see, sometimes reading between the lines, that attempts are constantly being made to evaluate the policy, but not to challenge its basic assumptions; this is not to fault such studies, but rather to fault the assumptions, which in a top-down decision-making system like Singapore, cannot be challenged with impunity[25]. Instead, the existing system is constantly tinkered with—ever more complex levels, tracks, bypasses, ‘quick fixes’, are introduced, without dealing with the basic assumptions.


How endangered is Tamil in Singapore? According to Fishman’s graded intergenerational disruption scale (GIDS), an eight-point scale of endangerment, with stage 8 the point of no return, Tamil can be located at Stage 4, “where the regional or minority language gains some official recognition and moves into mainstream formal education.” This stage presupposes that the minority language is actually used in the home and is transmitted intergenerationally, which is true for Tamil (and indeed other languages in Singapore) to some extent, but as we know from other studies, Tamil may indeed be lacking this support in many Singapore homes.[26]  But what is important here would be to determine whether measures taken by the Singapore state to strengthen the domains of Tamil, such that it moves up the ranks, e.g. to Stage 1, which is the highest level of vitality, or whether other measures taken by the state actually weaken the support for Tamil,[27] without appearing overtly to have any relationship to language maintenance.


Grin goes on to state that for minority languages to be used, there must be ‘capacity, opportunity and desire[28]’ to do so.  This is where problems with Tamil maintenance in Singapore appear most strongly, because while the school system gives children the capacity to use the language, they need opportunities to do so, and with the lack of a territorial domain for Tamil, and given the small size of the population, opportunities are few and far between.  And finally, desire, the weakest link.  When Tamils are interviewed on this issue[29], we find that little incentive to use the language exists.  The language has no economic value, and other opportunities to actively use it are few and far between—even religious use may be largely a matter of passive observation of religious practices, especially in Hinduism.[30] Since young people lack also the incentive or opportunity to create their own slang the way teenagers in other linguistic cultures do, they are forced either to speak like their elders[31], or simply opt out of  using the language.  As Grin puts it,


            “Typically, minority language speakers are bilingual.  This implies that in principle, they have a choice to carry out their various activities through the medium of the majority language or of the minority language. If there is a choice, one of the conditions for the choice to be made in favour of ‘doing things through the medium of the minority language’ is therefore people’s desire (or willingness) to do so.” (Grin 2003:44)


As Grin goes on to say,  minority language speakers are more dependent on the state (than are majority language speakers) to provide for the three conditions of capacity, opportunity and desire to be present.  Here is where things begin to get troublesome: Grin feels that the state needs to be sure desire is facilitated, but most polities I am aware of see this as something the minority language community needs to recognize for itself, and that it is not the task of the Singapore state to provide motivation to its minorities.  In the Tamil community, as far as I am aware, when desire or lack of it is discussed, the older generation generally faults the younger generation for lack of desire (especially lack of love for Tamil), and the younger generation of course rolls its eyes and replies that the older folks ‘just don’t get it.’ 


But perhaps the more serious problem here is the economic issue.  Tamil has no economic value in Singapore, since almost no jobs exist for people who know Tamil, or know it better than they know English.[32] To this the older generation, imbued with a love of Tamil that seems to be difficult to instill transgenerationally, reply that younger Tamils should love Tamil for reasons that are difficult to explain, or are just simply intangible.  This situation calls to mind another linguistic minority situation I have studied, that of German-Americans in 19th century America (Schiffman 1976). 


German-American church denominations tried to maintain the German language through the establishment of German-language schools for their parishioners’ children, and requests from congregations to deal with the fact that many younger members (known in German as die Nachkömmlinge) were becoming English speakers, were denied, ignored, or stonewalled.  The German-born pastors and theologians simply could not fathom how their children and grandchildren did not nurture the same love for the German language that they had brought with them from Germany, and refused to allow the English language any domains in these churches.  This had the unfortunate effect of driving die Nachkömmlinge out of these churches and into membership in English-speaking bodies, rather than making them love the German language. Perhaps the requirement among Singapore Tamils that their children should love the Tamil language as much as they do is having the same effect—driving them into the embrace of English, which they already learn in school, especially for  the study of ‘practical’ subjects.  The parallels between this situation and the German-American case are striking, since those schools also tried desperately to maintain some domains for German, falling back on a formula that reserved German for religious subjects (Bible study, hymn-singing, etc.) but English for math, science, and geography[33]. 


Grin again has pointed out the necessity of a cooperative approach:


There is no doubt that the behaviour of actual or potential language users is crucial for the success of any policy measure. Language use cannot be mandated, and there are many examples of well-intentioned revitalisation policies that have failed to produce any results, because of their top-down perspective, which ignored the role of actors. This does not mean that the authorities must […] make language decisions in their place. However, should we not expect the state to select measures in such a way that they actually engage actual and potential users, and result in effective minority language use? (Grin 2003:85)


One of the examples Grin cites here is that of Ireland, where attempts at revitalization went on for decades after the establishment of the Irish Republic, but were mostly unsuccessful, and have now been largely abandoned.  Irish citizens did not want to give up English, and did not even feel tremendous enthusiasm about learning Irish for sentimental reasons, even if they were forced by their school systems to do so. As the European Union expands to take in new members, as it recently did, it will be interesting to see whether this new state can help its citizens to retain languages with so few speakers as Estonian, Slovenian, and Latvian, when knowledge of English or some other language will obviously prove more ‘useful.’ Given the strong role of English in Singapore, it is also questionable whether efforts to get citizens to maintain languages spoken by less than 4% of the population will be successful in the long run.   


Conclusion.  In the end, it seems clear that the well-intentioned bilingual policy that Singapore embarked upon some 25 years ago has had some successes, but its failures  (or perhaps the incompleteness of its successes)  has been built on some assumptions that can not be substantiated.  For the Tamils in particular, bilingualism has been problematical, and the economic incentives that Bourdieu (1982) has shown in his work on France to be the real reason why people acquire a particular language[34] has led to language shift, not language maintenance. The cultural capital available to English-knowing elites has been too much of a temptation, and the desire to maintain a language with lesser economic value has been lacking.  As Tyler et al. have shown, social policies work best that appear to have been arrived at in a fair and equitable manner, but language policies are rarely arrived at anywhere in the world through any consultation with their users.  This is particularly true in a top-down decision-making decision like that of Singapore, so it is even less surprising that Singapore’s language policy is not working well for some of its citizens.  What the Singapore state (or more accurately, the Tamil section of the Ministry of Education and the Tamil section of the Curriculum Development Board) could do to rectify this before it is too late (if indeed it is not already too late), is not clear.[35]  But it is clear that a policy with so many unchallenged assumptions, and one that does not include careful attention to the question of whether they can in fact be implemented, can only be characterized as one in which implementation is the main problem. 






References Cited


1.      Blader, Steven, and Tom R. Tyler, (eds.)  2000. Cooperation in groups : procedural justice, social  identity, and behavioral engagement.  Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

2.      Bourdieu, Philippe. Ce que parler veut dire. Paris: Fayard, 1982

3.       Cobarrubias, Juan and Joshua A. Fishman, (eds.) Progress in Language Planning. International Perspectives. Contributions to the Sociology of Language, 31. The Hague: Mouton, 1983.

4.      Darley, John M.,  David M. Messick, and Tom R. Tyler  (eds.)  2001. Social influences on ethical behavior in organizations.  Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

5.      Daoust-Blais, Denise. “Corpus and Status Planning in Quebec: A Look at Linguistic Education.” In Cobarrubias and Fishman, 1983.

6.      Eastman, Carol M.  1983. Language planning, an introduction. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp.

7.      Fierman, William. 1995. “Problems of Language Law Implementation in Uzbekistan”. In William Fierman (editor). Nationalities Papers 23/3 (September 1995): Implementing Language Laws: Perestroika and its Legacy in Five Republics. Pp. 573 – 595.

8.      Fishman, Joshua, Jyotirindra Das Gupta, Björn H. Jernudd, and Joan Rubin, “Research Outline for Comparative Studies of Language Planning,” Can Language Be Planned? Joan Rubin and Bjorn H. Jernudd (eds.) (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1971), p. 293.

9.      ____________  1991.  Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

10.      Gopinathan, S., Pakir, A., Kam, H. W., & Saravanan, V. (Eds.). (1994, rev. 1998). Language, Society and Education in Singapore: Issues and Trends. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

11.  Grin, François.  2003.  Language Policy Evaluation and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languges.   London: Palgrave MacMillan.

12.  Gupta, Anthea Fraser. 1994. The Step-Tongue: Children's English in Singapore. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

13.  Haugen, Einar. 1966.  Language conflict and language planning; the case of modern Norwegian.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

14.  Khubchandani, Lachman M. 1983. Plural Languages, Plural Cultures. Communication, Identity, and Sociopolitical Change in Contemporary India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

15.  _____________ (ed.) 1988. Language in a Plural Society. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

16.  Lambert, Wallace E.,  et al. 1960 “Evaluational Reactions to Spoken Language,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1960, 60, 44-51.

17.  Lambert, Wallace E.  1967.  “A social psychology of bilingualism.” Journal of Social Issues 23 (2): 91-109.

18.  Lee, Kuan Yew.  From Third World to First: the Singapore Story: 1965-2000. HarperCollins, 2000.

19.  Lewis, E. Glyn. 1972. Multilingualism in the Soviet Union: Aspects of Language Policy and its Implementation, The Hague/Paris.

20.  Lewis, E. Glyn. 1983. “Implementation of Language Planning in the Soviet Union." In Cobarrubias and Fishman, 1983.

21.  Mackey, William F. 1983.  U.S. Language Policy and the Canadian Experience.” In Cobarrubias and Fishman, pp. 173-206.

22.  Schiffman, Harold F.  1987: ``Losing the Battle for Balanced Bilingualism: The German-American Case."  in J. Pool (ed.), Linguistic Inequality. Special Issue of Language Problems and Language Planning (Vol 11, No. 1, Spring, 1987). pp. 66-81.

23.  ____________  1996.  Linguistic Culture and Language Policy.  London and New York: Routledge.

24.  __________________  ‘Language Shift in the Tamil Communities of Malaysia and Singapore: the Paradox of Egalitarian Language Policy’. In  Language Loss and Public Policy, I , Garland Bills (ed.), Southwest Journal of Linguistics , Volume 14, Nos. 1-2, 1995.

25.  _________________ 1999: "Language, Primordialism and Sentiment." In G. Palmer and D. Occhi (eds.), Languages of Sentiment. Volume 18 of Advances in Consciousness Research. Philadelphia and Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 25-38.

26.  _________________ 2002. ‘Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Linguistic Culture," in Language and Communication Vol. 22:2, pp. 159-169, April 2002.

27.  __________________  2003. ‘Tongue-Tied in Singapore: A Language Policy for Tamil?’ Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 105-125.

28.  Theva-Rajan, A. 1995. (2nd edition 1998) Tamil as Official Language, Retrospect and Prospect. Colombo: International Center for Ethnic Studies.

29.  Tyler, Tom R., et al.   1997.  Social justice in a diverse society.  Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press.

30.  Tyler, Tom R.  “Procedural Strategies for Gaining Deference: Increasing Social Harmony or Creating False Consciousness?” In Darley, Messick and Tyler 2001.

31.   Wiley, T.G. (2001). Policy formation and implementation. In Joy Kreeft Peyton, Donald A. Ranard, & Scott McGinnis (Eds.), Heritage languages in America: Preserving a national resource, pp. 99-108. Washington, DC & McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

[1] Another possibility is that policy-makers are imbued with certain ideologies about language that lead them to believe that language planning cannot possibly be as difficult or complicated as students of language policy seem to imply, and that language planners are simply trying to create some sort of ‘mystique’ about language.

[2] That is, the ‘body’ of the language—its lexicon, grammar, syntactical patterns, etc.

[3] I have described (Schiffman 1996) how in France the public recognizes that there is an academy (the Académie française) which has been given the task of caring for the corpus of the French language—its grammar, its vocabulary, its ‘poetics’ and ‘rhetorics’, but the French Academy has never been given the mandate of legislating the status of the French language, and does not feel itself competent to do so. Thus when status issues arise, such as with the ‘invasion’ of English, or use of English loan words in French (so-called franglais) the Academy is helpless to intervene, and the French have had to create other bodies to deal with the status problems.

[4] This constitution, renaming Sri Lanka the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is dated September 7, 1978.

[5] Literary Tamil is the variety of Tamil that is written, and this can involve norms as old as the 13th century variety codified by Pavanandi, or may also include norms from earlier periods. It never involves spoken varieties or vernaculars, and in most educational systems that use Tamil, the spoken varieties (ST) are treated as ‘low, undignified, vulgar’ and unworthy of any respect; thus school systems typically attempt to eradicate Spoken varieties, rather than treat them as a resource that could be used to construct a knowledge of the literary varieties. 

[6] This confusion of corpus and status also occurs with regard to Chinese in Singapore, such that the status issues surrounding Chinese also have involved corpus issues—replacing the kind of Chinese spoken by children in their homes (dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, and Cantonese) by Mandarin, the only variety that can carry the high status.

[7] This notion, that the language spoken at home is the real mother tongue, is accepted by linguists as God’s truth, but is typically rejected by Tamil purists, who see only the literary language as deserving to have this designation. Thus the mother tongue of the child is rejected and denigrated, which has disastrous consequences for Tamils, as well as for other children who bring a non-standard language to the classroom. Since Singapore’s language policy always prefers exonormic varieties (BANA English, Kuala Lumpur Malay, Beijing Chinese) this policy affects all Singaporeans. 

[8] Recently, of course, the policy of requiring certain scores in mother tongue for entrance to Singapore’s universities has been changed, so this may have serious consequences for the languages now being taught.

[9] These strategies are abbreviation, acronyms, reduplication, and metonymy, allowing only derivation.

[10] I have also tried to deal with the issue of register formation in Schiffman 1996.

[11] A comparison of figures from the Singapore Census of 1991 with earlier censuses reveals that the home language of not only Tamils, but also other communities is becoming more English-dominant, and this tendency is becoming more worrisome with every census.

[12] In my interviews with Singapore Tamils in 1994, I often heard older Tamil speakers blame younger ones for their lack of love of the language.  Here is where Grin's question about the role of the policy makers in enabling speakers to envisage how their language might be useful.

[13] Recent press reports (Straits Times articles and letters to the editor March 24th-31st, 2004) detail not only Tamil students’ disenchantment with the policy, but other mother-tongue groups, including Chinese, as well.

[14] Tyler’s research also reveals that many for-profit organizations, including large banking organizations, also fail to consult their constituencies, too, and pay the consequences for it.  

[15] This does not mean that policy formation in the former USSR was not claimed to be fair, and in many ways probably was ‘fairer’ than many other language policies, at least at the outset. I am only saying that in the end, the policy was formulated at the highest levels, and did not involve consultation with lower levels of Soviet society.  Similarly, language policy in France is considered to be democratic, because it treats all citizens as having the same right to language, that language being standard French.  (The same argument is used to justify the denial of the right to wear religious symbols in schools, because that would result in some children being treated differently.)  The fact that not all children in France have equal access to standard French before they come to school is irrelevant; there is also an assumption that the school system will provide all the language instruction that is needed, on an equal basis, which obviates any arguments about inequality. 

[16] This has been a priority in France since the founding of the Académie française  in 1685, whereas status problems have been dealt with by issuing decrees and ordinances of various sorts, and assuming that this takes care of things.

[17] Implementation is of course an issue in other policy workings as well, as we are now seeing with what is generally referred to as ‘security’ issues in the world, i.e. security against terrorism.  So little is accomplished if schools or transportation systems are expected to strengthen security, but nothing is in fact done to implement the rules, or if funds are not appropriated, or if no timetable for implementation has been set.   


[18] Lambert’s study was the first ‘matched guise’ test for eliciting evaluations of languages and their speakers.

[19] It is important to keep in mind that language-immersion programs of this type are essentially voluntary, and nobody is required to remain in them. Since they are voluntary, if a child has learning difficulties, the child may be then excluded or dismissed from the program, or encouraged to switch to something else. Thus by the time assessment is made at grade 6, problem children have been removed from the system, just as in private schools in general, problems get removed, which means that those that finish do so at a high level,  leading some  people to believe that private education is a panacea for many problems.. 

[20] In the US, such programs have been used as  a way to entice the children of middle-class, usually white families to enroll in programs that can be located in ghetto schools, thus enabling the school authorities to claim that the schools are racially integrated, when in fact the immersion programs may be monochromatic. 

[21] One of these assumptions is that language shift will not occur, and that the type of curriculum used in Singapore’s schools, where practical subjects are taught in English, and ‘moral’ education is taught through the ‘mother tongue’ will in fact result in retention of both languages, on an equal basis. This is clearly not happening, but the policy does not seem to have been reevaluated because of this failure.

[22] Anthea Fraser Gupta’s work (1994) indicates that younger Singaporeans see their identity residing in their shared knowledge of Singapore English (or Singlish), since it is the only variety of language they are allowed to own, and the only one they share, and which makes them different from anyone else.

[23] Lee 2000:145-156.

[24] Emphasis mine, HS.

[25] Or, if an outsider like myself challenges them, they are simply dismissed.

[26] One can debate whether Tamil is actually at a stronger stage than even Stage 4, such as Stage 3, the ‘lower work sphere’, or Stage 2, ‘lower governmental services and the media.’  Tamil does have a bit of a niche in the media (radio and television) in Singapore, but whether ‘lower governmental services’ are available, such as in the post office, or in public signage, is questionable.

[27] I have pointed out in other studies that the housing policy, which distributes language groups in all HDB housing estates in the same proportion they hold in Singapore’s overall population, mitigates strongly against language maintenance, since the territorial domain is thereby eliminated. 

[28] Emphasis mine, [hfs].

[29] I conducted interviews with Tamils of various backgrounds during a stay in Singapore in 1994. These have not been published, but some excerpts of the opinions voiced appear in Schiffman 2003. One of the most negative things that people, including some Tamils, say about Tamil is that it is a ‘coolie language’ and thus not worth learning.

[30] Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the areas of language maintenance and use that has not been studied widely is the opportunity for language use in Christian churches, especially in various Protestant bodies, since this is one area where passivity in the religious experience is not encouraged.  This is true not only for Tamil Christians in Singapore, but for Chinese minorities such as speakers of Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, and Cantonese, services in which are offered in some Christian churches. 

[31] At Changi Airport, I once addressed a young immigration officer (whose Tamil name was obvious on her uniform) in Tamil. “Oh, you sound just like my Granny!” she replied in English.

[32] A few possibilities, which can be numbered on the fingers of one hand, namely, in journalism and in Tamil language teaching, do exist, but these are often seen as ‘dead-end’ jobs for people lacking other skills.

[33] There is a proposed daily schedule, or Stundenplan, that I copied from a German-American pedagogical journal, published in 1893, and which I reproduced (in Schiffman 1996:228) that is probably a reaction to the attempts in some Midwestern states in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s to curtail and restrict bilingual education.  This proposed 50/50 repartition of English and German subjects probably was an attempt to respond to the attempted bans, but by restricting German to religious subjects, and using English for practical subjects, they probably unwittingly created a kind of compartmentalized bilingualism that gave English the advantage, and led to English dominance. This is not surprising, giving the dominance of English in the US, and the economic advantage perceived by most immigrants to lie in a knowledge of English.  I would suggest that Singapore’s system may be doing the same.  

[34] In the case of France, the language being acquired is ‘standard’ French.

[35] In Schiffman 2003 I recommended that the Tamil community institute a broad survey and consensus-building process to consult all segments of the community with the goal of deciding what the purpose of Tamil language maintenance in Singapore should be, and which variety of Tamil it wishes to maintain.  This suggestion is not something that will sit well with a top-down decision-making process, so it will probably not happen. But it is what Tyler is referring to as the main fault of policy failure, and the reason why I fault the ideology of top-down control of language policy.