Sign of Chinatown Food Street along the road, 2014. (Image by Lester Balajadia / Shutterstock)

Language historian Tan Dan Feng: Displaying all four of the country’s official languages symbolically significant

When approached by Straits Times for his views on the use of different languages on Singapore’s public signs, language historian, Mr Tan Dan Feng said having more multilingual signs would expose Singaporeans to their mother tongues in their daily lives and affirm their status as “living languages” in society.

The ST article highlighted how about 40% of the 36 signs they surveyed at memorials, national monuments, tourist attractions and public institutions did not have all four official languages. Former foreign minister George Yeo even highlighted last month that this failure to include all official languages in public signage and plaques suggests that Singapore is becoming more homogenised in its language use.

“This is deliberately reducing our cultural genome. It is denying us of a powerful capability, a precious inheritance from the past which in fact will secure our future,” said Mr Yeo at an Institute of Policy Studies conference, exhorting Singaporeans to preserve this diversity in spite of the difficulties of doing so.

“The day Singapore decides to reduce its genome so that we become homogenised, that would be a very uninteresting Singapore,” he added.

Mr Tan shared his full response to ST on his Facebook page where he highlighted the richness of Singapore’s polyglot society that is not reflected in the signage around the island.

“Today, as we travel the island, not just the tourist sites, but also the void decks and wet markets where locals congregate, one can see that English has become the dominant language displayed on public signs and notices,” he said.

As the ST article pointed out, certain signs were multilingual, but not all the languages presented were Singapore’s official languages. For example, the signs for the Burmese Buddisht Tempre had only English, Chinese, Japanese, and Burmese translations while the sign for the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall used to be only in English and Chinese. This was back in 2012.

Now, however, the signs for both cultural locations include Malay and Tamil Translations as relevant agencies have been making amendments to their signs to reflect the diversity of the nation.

This is still inconsistent though. The sign for the Indian National Army monument in Connaught Drive is only in English while the sign for the Sultan Mosque is still missing Tamil.

The inconsistency  is clear in other public areas as well such as Changi Airport. Terminal 2 and 4 now carries all four languages as well as Japanese on its signs but most signs at Terminals 1 and 3 still do not have Tamil.

Signs at Change airport, 2015. (Image by Phuong D. Nguyen / Shutterstock)

Chairman of the Tamil Language Council, Mr R. Rajaram suggested that authorities come up with a guideline to standardise policies on language use across public institutions. This would mitigate any inconsistencies in public signage and notices.

Mr Tan said, “Building the right processes and investing the necessary resources will help minimise mistakes and errors.”

You might wonder why this is such an important point – to include all of Singapore’s official languages in its public signs and whether or not it really is important to include all four languages in every single public sign.

Well, Mr Tan offered some pragmatic and symbolic consideration when it comes to designing what languages to use on public signs and notices.

One of those considerations would be exposing Singaporeans, especially younger ones, to their native language in their daily lives which would affirm their status as ‘living languages’ in Singapore society. It’s one way to help all Singaporeans acquire and retain their command of these languages.

Another thing to consider, says Mr Tan, is whether there are still Singaporeans who have difficulty understanding English and who are disadvantaged or inconvenienced by the lack of signs in the other official languages.

He said, “The fact that important initiatives such as the Pioneer Generation Package or SARS prevention adopt comprehensive multilingual communication strategies suggests that the population of such Singaporeans is sizeable. Would they be “less privileged” in an English-dominant language milieu?”

And of course, no one can deny that being multilingual benefits both the country and its citizens. Singapore is after all a global economic hub. Being multilingual is a valued strength.

Apart from the practical considerations, Mr Tan argues that displaying all four of the country’s official languages is also symbolically significant as it signifies Singapore’s commitment to upholding one of the fundamental principles that defines the nation – diversity.

As for those who worry about the accuracy of translating signs into four different languages, Mr Tan says “There is nothing inherently unique about language translation compared to delivery of other public services.”

He asserted that relevant authorities should not be deterred from offering signs and notices in all four languages by possible criticism from the public over poor translations.

“Increasing the use of all four official languages on public signs and notices, because it touches the lives of everyone on the island, is an important and effective way to ensure that Singapore does not lose its polyglot DNA,” said Mr Tan

In the ST article, Dr Nazry Bahrawi, senior lecturer in humanities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, suggested that the four official languages should be used at sites of cultural and historical significance as diversity needs to be the foreground at these sites. Also, in signs where safety is paramount such as fire exits.

Associate Professor Lee Cher Leng from NUS’ Department of Chinese Studies chimed in to say that it is not practical to expect this for all road signs due to space constraints.

“In a world where most countries are seeing more linguistic diversity, it is worth reflecting whether Singapore can afford to move in the opposite direction,” concluded Mr Tan.