Do more to keep four official languages alive

Do more to keep four official languages alive

For the benefit of those who do not read Chinese, a controversy erupted in Singapore's Chinese-language media recently. The issue: shoddy translations after the National Heritage Board linked its English website content to Google Translate.

The episode was an embarrassing one for the custodian of the country's museums. The automatic translation facility turned text like "Bras Basah" into "bust Basah" in Chinese - meaning the name of a historic precinct became a part of the female anatomy. Screen shots of the translations were circulated among the Chinese-speaking community, here and in the region.

In response, the board announced last Monday something it should have done right from the start - it is considering making content on its website available in the four official languages, instead of just English alone. No more Google Translate, hello properly-vetted translations.

The board's group director of programmes Tan Boon Hui said the timeliness of delivering up-to-date information on its nine museums and heritage institutions simultaneously in Chinese, Malay and Tamil was the main challenge "as providing the most appropriate translation takes time", he told Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao.

I can think of a few good reasons why more government agencies should be making announcements or providing content in all four languages instead of exclusively in English.

It would help the elderly who cannot understand English so well. It would create a better learning environment for mother tongue languages among the young, who get to see and hear it being used more frequently. It would also expose Singaporeans and new residents to the languages of other communities, helping with integration and social bonding.

Apart from the museums, other obvious candidates for multilingual announcements and text are MRT stations, libraries and community centres - places which are well-populated or where communication cuts beyond practicalities to something deeper.

To give the beleaguered SMRT some credit - it scrapped announcements of station names in Mandarin after a trial in December last year led critics to accuse it of pandering to new immigrants from China - it has made some inroads into multilingualism.

When a train pulls into a station, there are printed signs showing the station name in English, Chinese and Tamil (I presume there is little variation between the English and Malay names). There are also emergency signs on trains in four languages and I have heard occasional audio alerts in Malay and Mandarin.

SMRT could go one step further and announce in the four languages the stations where commuters can change lines, like how it was done some years ago whenever the trains pulled up at City Hall and Raffles Place. This would be especially useful now that there are more train lines and hence more interchange stations, which could be confusing for those unfamiliar with the network.

In a sense, having more of such announcements and signs is a throwback to an earlier era when only a minority were versed in English. Think the four-language name plaques of buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s like the Singapore Conference Hall.

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