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Language policy in Singapore

 In order to sustain Hong Kong's competitiveness as an international city and to facilitate effective
communication and business exchanges with the Mainland, the Hong Kong Government has
implemented the "biliterate and trilingual" language education policy aiming at nurturing students'
English and Chinese language proficiency.
 According to the findings of a study released by the University of Hong Kong ("the HKU Study") in
August 2015, over 50% of the Hong Kong population aged between 15 and 19 claimed that they
could speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English in 2011, up from less than 20% in 1991. Also, 62%
and 68% of the Hong Kong residents aged 12 and above claimed that they could speak English and
Putonghua respectively. Nonetheless, the HKU Study estimated that only about 27% and 24% of the
Hong Kong residents aged 12 and above were proficient i.e. being rated "quite well, well or very well"
in oral English and written English respectively based on objective assessments.
 Similar to Hong Kong, Singapore has a bilingual education policy aiming at nurturing students' English
and mother tongue language skills. The bilingual education policy of Singapore has been considered
a success as the proportion of resident population aged 15 and above who claimed that they were
literate in English increased from 56% in 1990 to 77% in 2010; and the proportion of resident
population who claimed that they were literate in two or more languages increased from 40% in 1990
to 68% in 2010.1Legend symbol denoting Literacy refers to the ability to read with understanding in the specific language as claimed by the
person. In 2013, 89% and 97% of the secondary students attained pass level for English and Chinese

language respectively in the Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level)

("GCE 'O' Level") Examination.2Legend symbol denoting Secondary students who complete the four-year Express course, or the four-
year Normal (Academic) course plus an additional year of secondary course can sit for the GCE 'O' Level Examination. Secondary students who complete
the four-year Normal (Technical) course will sit for the GCE Normal (Technical) Level Examination.

 In view of Singapore's successful language education experience, this issue of Essentials aims to
provide an overview of the bilingual education policy in Singapore. As regards the issue of how English
is taught and learnt in Hong Kong, with special reference to the Native-speaking English Teacher
Scheme, it is discussed in another piece of Essentials entitled English language teaching and

Bilingual education policy in Singapore

 Singapore has adopted its bilingual education policy since 1966. Under the policy, English, one of the
four official languages, is taught as the first language and is the main medium of instruction in schools.
The other three official languages, i.e. Chinese, Malay and Tamil, which are the mother tongue
languages (MTLs) of the major ethnic groups3Legend symbol denoting In 2014, the resident population of Singapore comprised
74.3% Chinese, 13.3% Malays, 9.1% Indians and 3.3% other ethnic groups., have been taught as second languages in schools.

All students are required to learn one MTL according to their ethnicity.
 The goals of English language teaching and learning in Singapore are to ensure that (a) all students
can attain foundational skills, particularly in grammar, spelling and basic pronunciation so that they
can use English in everyday situations; (b) the majority of students can attain a good level of
competence in English speaking and writing for them to engage in various service industries; and (c)
at least 20% of the students can attain high degree of proficiency in English so as to maintain
Singapore's edge in various professions. With regard to the teaching and learning of MTLs, Singapore
government's objectives are to support and enable students to learn MTL to as high a level as they
are able to, and become proficient in using MTL in real-life settings to communicate effectively.

Key features of language teaching and learning under the bilingual education policy

Updating the curriculums on a regular basis

 The Ministry of Education ("MOE") of Singapore has conducted periodic reviews of its language
curriculums to ensure that they are relevant to the changing socio-economic environment, home
language usage situation and profile of students. The latest review of the English language curriculum
was completed in 2006 leading to the reform of the English language syllabus in 2010. The latest
review of the MTL curriculums was completed in 2010, leading to reform of the primary school MTL
curriculums in 2015.4In Hong Kong, the latest English and Chinese language curriculum guides for primary and junior secondary levels were
developed based on a curriculum review completed in the early 2000s. The English and Chinese language curriculum guides for senior secondary level
were developed in 2007 to pave the way for the implementation of the new senior secondary academic structure in 2009, and they were subsequently
updated in 2014. Schools are encouraged to develop their school-based curriculum based on the guides taking into consideration factors such as
learners' needs and the school context.

 The key feature of the reformed 2010 English language syllabus is the adoption of a systematic
approach to teach language skills, using rich texts and a variety of language resources to give
students meaningful contexts for learning and using English. At the primary level, the new teaching
and learning approach is delivered through the Strategies for English Language Learning and Reading
("STELLAR") programme under which English is taught through stories and texts that appeal to
children, with explicit grammar instruction.5The STELLAR programme was piloted in the lower primary levels in 2006 and
implemented in all primary schools across levels in 2009. The objectives of the programme are to build students' confidence in speech and writing, and

Students learn English through reading

enhance their learning of English under an interactive and enjoyable environment.

stories, and discussing and sharing their views with the teacher and their peers. At the secondary
level, the focus of the syllabus is on consolidating students' English language skills, particularly
grammar and spoken English.
 The 2015 primary school MTL curriculums put emphasis on developing students' spoken and written
communication skills with the adoption of authentic activities. There is also a greater use of
information and communication technology in the teaching and learning process so that students can
learn in a fun and purposeful way.

Catering for students with different learning abilities

 To cater for diversity in students' English learning ability, MOE offers English language learning at the
standard and foundation levels for primary and secondary students streamed according to the existing
streaming mechanisms.6Under the subject-based banding arrangement at the primary level, students may take a combination of standard
or foundation level courses for English, MTL, Mathematics and Science in Primary Five and Primary Six based on their examination results at the end of
Primary Four and Primary Five. At the secondary level, students are placed in Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) course based on their
scores in the Primary School Leaving Examination taken at the end of Primary Six. The
foundation level syllabus is specially
designed for low progress learners, helping them build a strong foundation for developing proficiency
in English for everyday situations and functional purposes.
 In addition, MOE has implemented the Learning Support Programme ("LSP") in all primary schools
since 1998. Under LSP, primary schools provide learning support to students who are identified to
have weak English language and literacy skills through a systematic screening process carried out at
the beginning of Primary One ("P1"). According to MOE, around 12% to 14% of the P1 cohort is
identified to require support each year. These students have to attend a 30-minute session conducted
by a qualified teacher every day in a group of eight to 10 students.7Most primary and secondary schools in Singapore
have classes of 40 or fewer students while P1 and Primary Two classes have 30 or fewer students. In Hong Kong, the average cl ass size was 26.6 for
primary schools and 30 for secondary schools in the 2014-2015 school year.Students
who fail in the school-based English
language examination at the end of P1 will continue to receive support in Primary Two.8In Hong Kong, under
the Early Identification and Intervention of Learning Difficulties Programme for Primary One Pupils, P1 students who are observed by the teachers to
have learning difficulties at the commencement of a new school year may be provided with school-based learning support. Between 2010 and 2013,
about 25% of P1 students were identified to have learning difficulties and provided with early support under the programme. According to the
Government, 7% to 8% of these identified students showed persistent learning difficulties and required diagnostic assessment, indicating that the
majority of the pupils had made progress with the early intervention. Nonetheless, results of the Territory-wide System Assessment ("TSA") in 2013
indicated that only 80% and 72% of Primary Three and Primary Six students attained basic competency in English language respectively. TSA is a
survey of the performance of students at Primary Three, Primary Six and Secondary Three levels in English language, Chinese language and Mathematics.

 The positive impact of the LSP and the STELLAR programmes was reflected by Singaporean students'
performance in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study ("PIRLS") which assessed fourth-
graders' reading literacy.9PIRLS was a study established by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement to
assess the reading literacy in mother tongue language of a random sample of fourth-graders in each participating place. The study has been conducted
every five years since 2001 and the latest study was conducted in 2011. While Singaporean students were tested in English in PIRLS, Hong Kong
students were tested in Chinese in PIRLS.The
study indicated that the percentage of weak performers decreased
from 24% in 2001 to 13 % in 2011 while the percentage of highly competent performers increased
from 12% in 2001 to 24% in 2011. In 2013, 97% of Primary Six students completing the standard
English syllabus attained Grade C or above in the Primary School Leaving Examination ("PSLE"). 10PSLE
is the national examination that students in Singapore sit at the end of their primary school education. The highest grade for each standard subject is
"A*" while the lowest grade is "E". Results of students taking the foundation subjects are not available.
 Regarding the teaching and learning of MTLs, MOE offers the foundation level MTL courses and the
MTL "B" curriculum for low progress learners at senior primary level and secondary level respectively.
The MTL "B" curriculum emphasizes on developing students' oral communication skills through
activity-based approaches. Students with ability and interest in learning MTL can take the higher MTL
courses at senior primary and secondary levels.

Other measures or factors conducive to language teaching and learning

 As teachers are important role models and enablers of language learning for students, MOE has set
stringent requirements on the qualifications and training of teachers. For example, language teachers,
particularly those teaching at the secondary level, are preferred to be graduates majoring in the
relevant language subjects and must have received training in teaching pedagogy. Teachers of English
medium subjects who do not meet the exemption criteria of the relevant Entrance Proficiency Test
("EPT") have to sit and meet the requirements of the English language EPT before they are deployed
to school, and in-service teachers are also required to attain 100 hours of professional development
each year under the sponsorship of MOE.11In Hong Kong, the qualifications requirements for new English and Chinese language
teachers in primary and secondary schools are quite similar to those in Singapore. As regards in-service teacher training in Hong Kong, all teachers,
including language teachers, are only encouraged to attain 150 hours of continuing professional development in a three-year cycle.

 In addition, Singapore has a language environment that is conducive to nurturing students' English
language skills. Students have opportunities to use and practise English at school as English is the
medium of instruction. Outside schools, students have access to a range of English media such as TV
channels, newspapers and books. The National Library Board has developed book lists to help teachers
and parents select age-appropriate books for students. Besides, it is observed that a growing
proportion of resident population aged five and above speak English most frequently at home. The
proportion grew from 23% in 2000 to 32% in 2010. In Hong Kong, the HKU Study indicated that 11%
of residents aged 12 and above used English regularly to communicate with their family members at

Concerns about the education system in Singapore

 Despite the outstanding performance of Singaporean students in international studies of academic

performance such as PIRLS, concerns have been raised on the examination-oriented education
system and the streaming of students at a young age. There were comments that the education
system had induced stress among students and prompted students to join private tuition classes.12See
BBC News (2012) and Ministry of Education, Singapore (2013).


 The language policy of Singapore aims to build residents' bilingual proficiency to sustain the nation's
economic prosperity. The Singapore government has periodically reviewed its language curriculums
to ensure that they are relevant to the latest local and global socio-economic developments and the
needs of the students. The latest English and MTL language curriculums focus on teaching and
learning the languages in real life contexts with the support of various teaching resources in order to
engage and motivate students in the learning process.
 It is also observed that the English language and MTL curriculums have been designed to cater for
students of different language background and learning abilities. MOE aims at ensuring that all
students, including the academically-weaker students, are equipped with the foundation skills to use
English and their MTLs in their daily life while the more capable students are enabled to develop
higher level of language competency. Besides, the Singapore government has put efforts to enhance
teachers' training and development, and cultivate a conducive language learning environment which
are important factors of effective language education.
Singapore: Bilingual Language Policy
and its Educational Success
By Anthony Jackson on February 25, 2013 2:31 AM

International Mother Language Day was last week and we posted about celebrating the
individual mother tongue each of us uses. Today we look at Singapore's inclusive
language policy.

By Ee-Ling Low

Singapore's education system has garnered much international interest in the light of its
consistently high student achievement in internationally benchmarked tests. Many are
asking the obvious question: Why or what accounts for Singapore's educational

While a myriad of factors lie at the heart of Singapore's educational success, this article
will focus on the contribution of careful language planning and policy implementation
that has helped the nation to consistently perform well on international student
achievement tests.

Singapore is a multi-racial country with diverse ethnic groups and cultures. The major
racial groups in Singapore are the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others (mainly
Eurasians). During British colonial rule, the local schools' medium of instruction was
based on their mother tongue: that is, the language of their respective ethnic group.

In 1965, when Singapore obtained full independence, there was a need for a lingua
franca to facilitate communication among the different races and different dialect-
speaking groups. Then, English was not just a world language, but more importantly,
the language of the Commonwealth, and of science and technology. Since no ethnic
group can claim English to be their own language, English was considered a convenient
means by which Singaporeans could express their common national identity. The
government named English, along with Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—the languages of
the major ethnic groups—to be the four official languages of Singapore.

The bilingual education policy was one of the first policies of the newly formed
independent government. The policy was implemented as a way of unifying the different
ethnic groups while providing an anchor for pupils to their ethnic and cultural heritage.
With the implementation of the policy, English-medium schools were expected to offer a
choice of Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil as the second language. English was offered as a
second language in non-English medium schools. Schools were also expected to use
the pupils' mother tongues as the medium of instruction for Civics and History lessons.
Due to the rising popularity of the use of English as the language of international trade,
non-English medium schools faced dwindling enrollments. By 1987, all schools were
converted to English-medium schools. In terms of university education, English has
been used as the medium of instruction since 1979.

Since the implementation of the policy, the population of English-knowing bilingual

speakers has been increasing. According to the information reported on the Singapore
Census of Population 2010 website, the proportion of bilingual speakers among
residents increased by 13.5% between the last census data release in 2000 and 2010.

Literacy Among Resident Population Aged 15 Years and Over

Table from the Singapore Census of Population 2010 website

The bilingual education policy also gave policy makers, educational leaders, and
teachers the immediate linguistic ability and access to learn from other education
systems, particularly those in English-speaking nations. From teaching materials, to
curricula development, to teacher education, to school administration and leadership,
Singapore began its important task of nation building through its education system.
Educators had international access to a wealth of resources worldwide through different
phases of educational development, from the survival-driven phase in the 1960s and
1970s through to the efficiency-driven phase in the late 1970s to 1980s to the ability-
driven phase from the late 1990s to the present where multiple pathways are developed
in an attempt to maximize students' achievement potential and to place maximizing
every student's life potential at the heart of all our educational endeavors.

Beyond education, English language competency remains Singapore's most important

asset for international trade. With the economic rise of China and India, being bilingual
proves to be of utmost importance. With our Malay-speaking regional neighbors that
offer abundant partnership prospects, Malay-speaking Singaporeans will be at the
advantage to explore opportunities beyond Singapore.

The adoption of four co-official languages in Singapore means that while Singaporeans
are competent in the use of English as an international language, our cultural ties and
heritage are not lost by mastering a second language closely linked to the ethnic make-
up of one of the major racial groups in Singapore. This policy therefore has the
ingenuity of uniting us in a language that none of the racial groups can claim to be
ethnically biased while allowing us to celebrate the diversity of the tongues that come
along with our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural make-up. In today's digital age, where
information transfer occurs at breakneck speed, high levels of language competency to
process, transfer, and communicate information effectively on the global platform will
only grow in importance.