A matter of national (In)security: English language policy in Singapore
Foo, Amanda Limin
Date of Issue2017
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Linguistic insecurity is a sociolinguistic phenomenon that has been well-documented and studied since the mid-twentieth century. A speaker’s negative perception of their own speech in comparison to the ‘superior’ variety can lead to an obsession with the ‘standard’ form and a discrimination against those who do not conform to it. What then, when linguistic insecurity is not just manifested on a national scale, but is created and reinforced by the state? Such is the case with Singapore. The idea that her people speak sub-standard English is so ingrained amongst the populace that it seems part of the national identity, despite the nation’s high proficiency in English. The nation’s leaders have been heard bemoaning Singaporeans’ poor command of the language since the 1980’s, which ultimately culminated in the 2000 launch of The Speak Good English Movement (SGEM) language campaign. The state’s quiet but steady exonormative orientation towards its ex-colonial masters also raises important issues about regarding linguistic ownership of English, an international language in today’s globalized world. This paper seeks to understand the nature and role of linguistic insecurity in Singapore through three areas of investigation: 1) language policies and policy makers, the ‘producers’ of the narrative of linguistic insecurity, 2) mass media and language campaigns, the ‘medium’ through which the narrative is disseminated and 3) the citizenry and language educators, the ‘target audience’. Initial findings suggest that while the people seem to have internalized the narrative of linguistic insecurity, their linguistic behaviours paint a dissonant picture. The population continue to negatively perceive the nation’s standard of English, yet they also display confidence in their English language proficiency. More importantly, the findings show an ever-growing number of Singaporeans are exercising their linguistic ownership of English, in direct contrast to the state’s categorization of English as purely a ‘working language’.