Tough to learn Mandarin and English, along with dialects: PM Lee

SINGAPORE - There is still room for Chinese dialects in Singapore, but it is not pragmatic for them to be mastered along with Mandarin and English, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Launching this year's Speak Mandarin Campaign, Mr Lee said he understands the desire for the young to learn dialects and protect their use as an important part of Chinese culture.

The campaign, started in 1979, has been successful, but Mr Lee did not agree with those who feel that since many Singaporeans now speak Mandarin, we should allow dialects to be used more widely.

When Singapore introduced the bilingual policy, it did so after careful observation and finding that it is very difficult for most people to master English, Mandarin and dialects at the same time.

"This principle has not changed," said Mr Lee.

Hong Kong is an example of the difficulty of mastering several languages at once. While the standard of Cantonese is high there, people are not as fluent in Mandarin and even less so in English, he said.

The trade-off between emphasising bilingualism and sacrificing dialects has allowed Singapore to maintain good standards in English and Mandarin.

Otherwise, Singaporeans' English standards and future opportunities might be affected, as might their Mandarin ability and the long-term standing of Mandarin in Singapore.

"This is a huge price to pay," said Mr Lee.

But dialects can still be used in special circumstances, and on the whole, Singapore's "language policy remains sound", he said.


This article was first published on JULY 6, 2014.
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