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.

English may now be the accepted lingua franca but there are other reasons why we should be reverting to multilingual communication, such as reinforcing a distinctive national identity.

A Chinese Singaporean intern at this newspaper once told me she taught herself simple Tamil from, among other things, listening carefully to the Tamil announcement about changing stations on her daily commute to school. It appears many young people can identify with this - a 19-year-old Malay Singaporean, Miss Nurhafizah Hatman, became an online hit earlier this year for her accent-perfect YouTube video intoning: "Dear passengers, for your own safety, please stand behind the yellow line", in the four languages.

But here is also where the challenge of communicating accurately in four languages needs to be addressed. It is a chicken-and-egg situation; one needs to be constantly exposed to a language in order to gain or maintain proficiency in it, but if the exposure is to a poorly constructed version of the language, the effect would be counter-productive.

The growing dominance of English in the public and domestic spheres has eaten into fluency in all the mother tongue languages. More often than not, foreigners who are native speakers of these languages are asked to translate for our government agencies. Given that they may not have grown up or even lived here, this means that it will not be the first and last time you see the equivalent of "bust Basah" pop up in translation.

Given the English-medium education system and the global pervasiveness of English, I am not sure what more schools can do to improve how mother tongue languages are taught. Already there are schemes for students to pursue various Asian languages at a higher level. And despite all that English coming out of their mouths and going into their ears, Singaporeans are far from being ace speakers of the language, as the need to institute a Speak Good English Movement testifies.

Beyond what policymakers can or cannot do, some fundamentally entrenched attitudes towards language-learning need to be debunked.

One is the sufficiency of English, that it is the one language you need to master to get by in life. Yes, it is the dominant language of global finance, technology and popular culture. But you do not have to travel far to find out the limits of being a monolingual anglophone - just going across the Causeway will suffice.

In an incredibly diverse world with so many alternative economic, political and cultural centres - think Jakarta, Beijing or Mumbai - we would be short-changing ourselves if we did not set a higher bar for proficiency in an Asian language that also constitutes some part of who we are.

The other problem is that it is all too easy here to be content with a functional, perfunctory command of any language, including English. This explains why Singaporeans as a whole do not read literature and that one is hard-pressed to find serious discourse in the public sphere.

It takes a lot of work to master a language and grasp its nuances. Sure, I take to contemporary English-language literary fiction like a duck to water, but find myself struggling to get into the poetry or period literature I once devoured as an English Literature major. As for my command of Chinese that improved by 300 per cent from a Beijing stint several years ago, I feel it deteriorating now when I plod through a Chinese-language report or essay.

For a while, I actually thought to myself - forget it, why read "difficult" English literature or Chinese newspapers when one is so busy with other things?

But reflecting on the National Heritage Board's Google Translate fiasco, I decided that "no time" was precisely the thinking that got the institution into that fix in the first place. One needs to make time to burnish the languages in our lives, or we would be poorer for it.

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