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ELL Symposium

Language, Power and Ideology- the theme of this year’s English Language and Linguistics Symposium posed many questions for the agile minds of our ELL students, teachers, and other participants.

The Symposium commenced with a light-hearted yet thought-provoking opening speech by our Vice-Principal, Mr David D’Souza, who set the stage by sharing the joys that judicious use of the language brings us. He proposed that perhaps, sometimes all that is needed to spice up communication is to inject a little humour into the parsing of our sentences, striking a chord with the students and teachers alike.
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Mr D'Souza's opening address

Dr Lionel Wee, Vice Dean of Research at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS), poised us for deep thought in the first talk of the Symposium, titled Singapore’s Language Policy: Rationales and Challenges. He shed light on the assumptions made by the government when crafting Singapore’s language policy, and how they have resulted in a grey area when it comes to individuals who fall beyond Singapore’s “normal” mother-tongue types, namely Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, amidst other repercussions. 

For instance, we have witnessed how our Eurasian friends are left with Hobson’s choice when it comes to Singapore’s bilingualism policy. Generally, a student of mixed race is to take the mother-tongue language most closely affiliated with their father’s ethnic group. In order to fulfil the criterion of studying two languages, they often take up languages they lack any connection with, albeit reluctantly. This problem of a lack of connection with one’s mother tongue is likely to escalate, given how Singapore’s society is expanding to include even more ethnicities and the increasing hybridity where intermarriage between Singaporeans and foreigners is no longer uncommon. 
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Dr Lionel Wee's presentation

Thankfully, a solution to this dilemma was proposed, garnering silent nods of agreement, even of excitement- that students be allowed to take any language of their choice alongside English. In so doing, the inflexible rule of ethnicity by which mother tongue is allocated is done away with; in its stead, a policy that encourages diversity and proudly acknowledges Singapore’s many mother tongues. 

Attendees then adjourned to the Concourse for a brief intermission with refreshments, with avid discussion of Singapore’s language policy unceasing nevertheless.

Dr Bruce Lockhart, Associate Professor in the Department of History at NUS, analysed Singapore’s language policy in the era following its dependence in the second talk of the day, Colonial Languages and Language Policy in Decolonised Southeast Asia: A Historical Overview, providing insights of the crafting of language policies across Southeast Asia with a historical viewpoint. A key question permeated the discussion- Is national language really national?
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Dr Bruce Lockhart's presentation

Unravelling the histories of Myanmar, Indonesia, and the Philippines at the points of the inception of their language policies, Dr Bruce, as Dr Wee established earlier, highlighted that language is always about power. Colonial languages were the key to power and careers within the system, seen superior to vernacular languages. Under colonial rule, missionaries traversed these lands seeking to evangelise their peoples. They many a time had to translate the Christian Bible into foreign languages to accommodate the language needs of the people. This creation of writing systems introduced antagonism between speakers of different tongues, as they allowed minority languages to rival major regional languages.

Wrapping up the Symposium was the anticipated Q&A session, during which students and teachers alike probed the ins and outs of Singapore’s language policy, elucidated by Dr Lionel Wee and Dr Bruce Lockhart. Our speakers sifted out insights from folly, setting in motion far deeper understanding of the power of language.
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  Our student, Elijah, posing a question at the Q&A session