The willingness to learn language as a form of assimilation


By Richard Wan

The State of Louisiana was actually a french territory in the continental America initially. It was officially proclaimed as a French territory and named in honour of King Louis XIV by explorer Cavelier de Lasalle in 1682.

In other words, it was the French who founded Louisiana.

In 1803, Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory to the United States so as to raise money for his continual war in Europe. As a result, Louisiana was incorporated into the US and US territories expanded tremendously.

Louisiana formally became a state of US in 1812. At the time, it was the only non-majority English speaking state in the union. Most residents and settlers of Louisiana were from France or other French colonies and spoke French. Despite attaining statehood in US, Louisianians continued to speak French for another hundred years or so. However, as the American society progressed, the pressure for Louisiana to use English as its main language increased.

In 1912, the Louisiana legislature passed an act allowing the Department of Education of the state to select all books and curricula for public schools. The next year, English was stressed throughout the curricula, essentially banning French from the schools. Thus, Louisianian children that were brought up speaking French at home would have to learn English. The events were completed in 1921 when the Louisiana State Constitution was changed so that all school proceedings had to be conducted in English.

Another reason for Louisiana ‘forcing’ itself to switch to English was also due to World War I. Spurred on by then Theodore Roosevelt’s battle cry of “One nation, one people, one language”, the need to unify the nation in the wake of World War I became too strong a force to buck.

In Singapore, our constitution stipulates that the 4 official languages used in our Parliament are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. For practical purpose, English is now taught in schools as the first language with the other 3 as second language. Hence, Singaporeans are brought up to be bilingual.

In the case of Chinese and Malay Singaporeans, their choice of second language is obvious. However, for Indian Singaporeans, this is not so. Not all Indians in Singapore are of Tamil descent. As such, many native Singaporeans of Northern Indian ancestry took Malay as their second language instead. This in itself is not necessary a bad thing. For example, with the Malay language, many Indian Singaporeans can converse easily with the Singaporean Chinese elderly without much problems as many of the elderly do not speak English. Indeed, bilingualism further helps to enhance inter-race communications in our Singaporean society, with respect to the constitution of Singapore.

However, in recent years, MOE has changed its policies allowing new immigrants to study their own mother tongue as second language. This policy is reflected on MOE’s website [Link]:

“Our Mother Tongue Language (MTL) policy requires all students who are Singaporeans or Singapore Permanent Residents to study their respective official MTL: Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

A non-Tamil Indian may choose to offer as his/her MTL: (a) Tamil, or (b) a non-Tamil Indian Language such as Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi or Urdu.”

In the olden days, this was not possible. Everyone can only choose Chinese, Malay or Tamil as second language, which are recognized in our constitution.

This change in MOE’s language policy can potentially open up a pandora box. Many new immigrants may likewise, demand that their own mother tongue like Burmese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Tagalog etc should also be taught in schools for their children. Would MOE change its policy again? Or would our constitution be later changed then to recognize that all these languages as official languages of Singapore too?

In a famous letter written by the former US President Theodore Roosevelt to the American Defense Society in 1919, he wrote:

"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...

There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."  (emphasis by the author)

Clearly, the former US President was saying that America welcomes immigrants but the immigrants have to also reciprocate by showing his willingness to assimilate himself into the American society.