Tamil Language Policy in
the Role of Implementation.
Language, Capital, Culture:
Critical Studies of Language in Education in Singapore.
Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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). 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.. Immersion bilingual education accords high status to the families that participate, and at very little cost. 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, 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
Assumptions. What are some of the
unwarranted assumptions that underlie language policy in
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.
assumption that exonormic standards for all of
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.
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:
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).
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
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. 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
Grin goes on to state that for minority languages to be
used, there must be ‘capacity, opportunity and desire’
to do so. This is where problems with
Tamil maintenance in
“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
But perhaps the more serious problem here is the economic
issue. Tamil has no economic value in
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.
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
Conclusion. In the end, it seems clear that the
well-intentioned bilingual policy that
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17. Lambert, Wallace E. 1967. “A social psychology of bilingualism.” Journal of Social Issues 23 (2): 91-109.
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 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.
 That is, the ‘body’ of the language—its lexicon, grammar, syntactical patterns, etc.
 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.
This constitution, renaming
 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.
This confusion of corpus and status also occurs with regard to Chinese in
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
Recently, of course, the policy of requiring certain scores in mother tongue
for entrance to
 These strategies are abbreviation, acronyms, reduplication, and metonymy, allowing only derivation.
 I have also tried to deal with the issue of register formation in Schiffman 1996.
 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.
 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.
Recent press reports (Straits Times articles and letters to the editor
This does not mean that policy formation in the former
This has been a priority in
 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.
 Lambert’s study was the first ‘matched guise’ test for eliciting evaluations of languages and their speakers.
 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..
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Lee 2000:145-156.
 Emphasis mine, HS.
 Or, if an outsider like myself challenges them, they are simply dismissed.
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
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
 Emphasis mine, [hfs].
I conducted interviews with Tamils of various backgrounds during a stay in
 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.
 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.
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
In the case of
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