Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 1 January 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
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         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Language Shift Among Singaporean Malayalee Families

Anitha Devi Pillai, Ph.D. Candidate


This paper describes the language shift among Singaporean Malayalee community by examining language choices and beliefs of three generation of Singaporean Malayalees. The changes in language choices of Singaporean Malayalees are a result of several sociopolitical factors that have taken place in the last 70 to 80 years. Several perspectives on language shift are analyzed in light of the data in this study. The study reveals that the members of the community who are below 50 years old are shifting from Malayalam to English and that Singaporean Malayalees are shifting from standard Malayalam to a hybrid variety of Malayalam described as Singaporean Malayalam.

Singaporean Malayalees and Language Education

Singaporean Malayalees are the second largest sub-group within the Indian community. The first Malayalee immigrant arrived in Singapore in the 1930s and 1940s. In the immediate post-war years, there was an influx of Malayalee immigrants from Kerala who came to Singapore to work (Turnbull 1996). Out of the 7.9% (257, 791) of the Indian population here, there are 21, 736 Singaporean Malayalees in Singapore (Leow 2001). The rest of the Indian community comprises of 64% Tamils and speakers of other languages such as Telugu, Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi.

In order to accommodate to the multi-ethnic composition of Singapore, there are four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. While an institutional label such as Tamil provides a convenient ethnic label to assign a designated language, this label does not capture the heterogeneity of the linguistic composition existing within the Indian community.

Malayalees learned different languages that they came into contact with such as Malay (which was the principal inter-ethnic lingua franca between Chinese, Malays and Indians till 1965 and a compulsory subject in schools during the Federation of Malaya), English (which the British used for administration from 1819-1961) and Tamil (being the mother tongue of the majority of Indians, became the community language of people of Dravidian origin). Subsequently, Malayalees became multilingual in these languages and began to use English and Tamil alongside with Malayalam.

Before English medium schools became compulsory in 1987, the Chinese community had Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien-medium schools which catered to the sub-minorities. But there were no Malayalam-medium schools and many of the Malayalees were enrolled in Tamil schools. On one hand Indian students were given an opportunity to mingle among Tamils and other sub-minorities. On the other hand, Malayalees were unable to learn more about their own culture and the language was not transmitted as the primary language to children.

When all schools reverted to the English medium, Malayalee students took up other languages with the majority opting to take Tamil and Malay and a small group opting to take Mandarin as a second language. However, in 1987, the government restructured the entry into 'mother-tongue' lessons and Malayalee students were only allowed to study Tamil. The government reasoned that since 'mother-tongue' lessons were culturally related to one's ethnic background, Dravidian language speakers have much more in common with the Tamil community than with the Malay or Mandarin speaking communities.

The language policies in Singapore propel the assimilation of the Malayalees into the Tamil community. The school policy requires students to take up a second language that is ethnically related to them or in the case of mixed marriages, to the father of the child. Although Gomez (1997) points out that there were efforts by the ministry to boost minority Indo-Iranian languages such as Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu and Hindi, Malayalam was not given the same status despite being the language of the second largest group of Indians in Singapore. South Indian students have to study Tamil (Gupta 1997). There is an incorrect presumption that all Malayalees speak Tamil and share the same culture with the Tamils. Labeling Tamil as the mother-tongue for Malayalees in Singapore places them in a precarious situation since Tamil promotes the loss of Malayalee culture and aids in the assimilation of Malayalees into the mainstream Tamil culture.

Other Socio-Political Factors that Shaped Language Use

Hoffmann (1991) states that political, social, demographic, cultural and linguistic factors could either encourage language maintenance or result in language loss. Among these factors that inhibit the transmission of ancestral language, the support from the government and schools has been discussed in the earlier section. The remaining relevant factors are: low status of Malayalam, well dispersed speakers, lack of utilitarian value of Malayalam in religious rituals, languages used in the media and the lack of motivation by members.

The low status of Malayalam in Singapore is one of the contributing factors that affect language maintenance among Malayalees. Furthermore, they do not have the numerical strength in comparison to the Tamils to maintain their language. Neither does Malayalam have any economic or vital instrumental value in Singapore. The lack of practical support and opportunities to acquire the language ascribe to the low profile of Malayalam in Singapore. This, in turn, may alienate Malayalam speakers from their language.

One government policy that has led to the minimal use of Malayalam is the implementation of ethnically mixed neighborhoods. According to the 2001 census (Leow 2001b), 88% of Singaporeans live in Housing Development Board (HDB) flats. The sale of HDB flats is controlled by the government in order to prevent the formation of ethnic ghettos. Limits have been placed on the percentage representation of the races in each neighborhood. This isolates Malayalees from one another. The speakers are dispersed and it becomes difficult to maintain the language when the lingua franca of the neighborhood is English rather than Malayalam.

Furthermore, Malayalees do not require knowledge of the language for religious rituals. None of the main religions of the Malayalees uses Malayalam as their language medium in religious rituals. The Hindus use Sanskrit, the Christians use English and the Muslims use Arabic. 'Onam', a harvest festival which is celebrated by Malayalees of all religions is an outdated festival in Singapore. As Anandan (1995) points out, since Onam is not a public holiday it goes unnoticed by most Malayalees in Singapore. Apart from having traditional associations with the Malayalee culture, Onam is also an outdated cultural festival that seems to have lost its appeal with the younger generation.

In addition, the media in Singapore predominately broadcasts American and British serials and movies. These programs facilitate the language shift to English. Furthermore, Malayalam is virtually absent from the media and both television and radio programs are only available in the official languages. 'Cable television station' from Kerala was only available in Singapore from 2005 onwards. Till which time, Singaporean Malayalees had minimal access to newspapers and magazines for the last two decades, as shopkeepers did not bring supplies from India due to low demand. These have stifled the transmission of Malayalam to the next generation. Ironically there has been an influx of materials available in the recent years on the internet but this medium is sought largely by expatriate Malayalees as the majority of Singaporean Malayalees below 40 years old are illiterate in Malayalam.

Purpose and Scope of Study

Taking the above-mentioned factors into account, this study chooses to examine language use of Singaporean Malayalees from the sociolinguistic point of view. It limits itself to Malayalees who have lived in Singapore for at least 30 years and those who were born in Singapore. The study specifically aims to investigate language use patterns and attitudes towards various languages they use. It will also identify any synchronic differences or similarities between participants of the same age group or with similar group affiliations. This study is then of potential relevance to language shift and maintenance issues.

Language Shift

'Language Shift' refers to changes in language use among a community of speakers such as when a community starts to use one language in domains and functions in which its members had previously used another language (Fasold, 1984:213) and a shift in the number of speakers of a language (Baker, 1996:42). Similarly, Weinreich (1968:79) defines language shift as 'the change from the habitual use of one language to that of another.' This could either be a "gradual or sudden move from one language to another" (Crystal, 1997:215). Furthermore, this shift is unavoidable when two languages compete for use in the same domains (Romaine, 2000:49).

In order to facilitate a discussion in language shift, one must also take into account that the various degrees of language shift in speech communities in the world and within one community. When the cycle of language shift is completed, speakers will be monolingual (Hoffmann, 1991:186).

When language shift is incomplete, only one section of the community may be affected to a lesser degree and maintain some degree of proficiency because they continue to use it in some domain. Hence, being monolingual in a language or a variety is an indication of complete language shift. Since the identification of the degree of language shift in the community bears implications for the future of the language, the present study will examine the degree of language shift among Singaporean Malayalees as well.

There are also many inter-related dimensions to language shift. One dimension of language shift is the inter-ethnic group communication shift. This may promote 'stable bilingualism' (Fase et. al., 1993:7) and is usually brought about by necessity. Another dimension of language shift is for intra-ethnic group communication. The language used in inter-ethnic communication can lead to a shift in intra-ethnic group interaction as illustrated by the Indian community in Singapore. Kuo (1985:47) reports that the Indian community has experienced more pronounced language shift in the home domain than the other ethnic communities.

The current study hence begins by examining language choices of Singaporean Malayalees to ascertain if they are truly using English in most domains of language use and with members of their community.

The future of stable bilingualism among Singaporean Malayalees is bleak. It is unlikely that speakers will maintain two languages indefinitely when they are able to use one language for all domains (Edwards, 1995). This form of shift will destabilize language proficiency as well. Singaporean Malayalees are not effectively bilingual in English, Malayalam and Tamil either. They have shifted to English, the dominant lingua franca in Singapore for inter-ethnic group communication and to Tamil for intra-ethnic group communication among South Indians. This hypothesis is further tested during the analysis of the questionnaires where I examine language choices of participants.

Factors affecting Language Shift

Since language is an integral tool in our communication, a community or individual may choose to change one set of linguistic tools for another (Hoffman, 1998:187). This change may also be accompanied by external pressure or other subtle factors. Sociolinguists classify the causes for language shift as economic status, demography and institutional support and the languages present in the school domain (Hoffmann, 1991). Baker (1996:42) argues that deliberate decisions directly or indirectly have an impact on economic, political, cultural, social and technological changes. All these factors have a bearing on the current research.

Schermerhorn (1970:15) attributes language shift to the degree of integration of ethnic groups into the surrounding societies. The nature and degree of integration in return, is dependent upon a composite function of three independent and three intervening variables. The three independent variables are the nature of interaction, the degree of enclosure, the degree of control (Schermerhorn 1970:15). These three variables are relevant in the discussion of language choices of Singaporean Malayalees as government policies on education and housing have shaped their language choices.

Language allegiance has often been identified as an important criterion in language shift. Dorian (1982:147) argued that language loyalty would persist as long as the economic and social circumstances are conductive to it, but if some other language proves to have greater value, a shift to that language would begin. Williams (1992:58) adds that economic circumstances are more important than the cultural circumstances. In order to investigate the presence of language allegiance, the participants of this study are asked about their views of their home language.

Likewise, an investigation of attitudes towards Malayalam, Singaporean Malayalam and other languages is also incorporated into the interview with the participants. When languages are in contact, there are bound to be attitudes favoring or disfavoring the languages involved. These can have profound effects on the psychology on the individual and on the use of the languages (Grosjean, 1982:118). Attitudes to "both threatened and threatening languages" (Wardhauge 1995:18) by the society at large and the interlocutors, is one of the primary reasons for the decline and maintenance of languages. Languages in decline "often evoke negative attitudes" (Edwards, 1995:111), primarily because a decline in the existence and traditional life styles invariably entails that there would be a decline in languages as well (Edwards, 1995). Hence the prestige associated with the language would also have a bearing on the rate and degree of language shift among speakers.

However, a lack of prestige associated with the language does not necessarily mean that the community "lacks affection for the their maternal variety" (Edwards, 1995:107), on the contrary they could actually cherish their maternal variety buy it would merely remain the symbol of their heritage and shift away from this variety for other reasons such as for practical and progressive purposes.

There exists a widespread belief that a shift in language brings about a change in identity and speakers might be resistant to this because the new identity is unwelcome (Wardhauge 1995:5). This new language and identity can be actively promoted and pursued. This is an important criterion in understanding the future maintenance or loss of the language as such it is necessary to examine the attitudes of members towards languages used by Singaporean Malayalees.

The abovementioned factors play a vital role in the present study. Although, Malayalam does not have an extrinsic value in Singapore, it is still maintained by the community. With a wide repertoire of languages available to the community, it will worthwhile to investigate the language choices in order to establish language shift within the community.

Studies on Language Shift among Singaporean Indians

There are many studies that have dealt with language patterns of the Non-Mandarin Chinese languages, Malay and some Indian languages. Mani and Gopinathan (1983: 106) refuted Kuo's (1985: 140) claim that Tamil was one language which was showing 'declining communicativity even for intra-ethnic communication among Indians'. They point out that by 1980, the situation had reversed and more people were speaking in Tamil.

Later, Sobrielo (1986) conducted an exploratory study with a sample group of informants from the ages of 12 to 60 and established that Tamil is being maintained in many domains such as schools. Both Sobrielo (1986) and Ramiah (1991) point out that Tamil is being replaced by English in the home domain. The latest survey by Saravanan (1994), which was based on the census report and surveys, found that there was a decrease in the number of Tamil speakers. She concluded that Tamil will remain the predominant language only in the school domain. Unlike other North Indian languages such as Hindi and Gujarati, Malayalam has not been recognized as an 'O' level or 'A' level subject despite being the language of the second largest group of speakers among the Indian community. Without institutional support, the Malayalee community is susceptible to language shift.

To date two studies have been conducted on the language shift phenomenon among Singaporean Malayalees. Anandan (1996) investigated the language patterns of Hindu Singaporean Malayalee families and concluded that if language shift towards English continues, the language may die a natural death in Singapore. However, Malayalam can hardly be classified as a dying language as there are approximately 20 million speakers of this language in the world (Finegan 1992). It would be appropriate to claim that Singaporean Malayalees are shifting to English and Tamil due to factors such as education policies and the lack of official recognition of Malayalam. Hence the participants in this study are also likely to choose between these two codes in their conversation.

Fernandaz's (1998) study was both qualitative and quantitative in which she reaffirms through questionnaires and interviews that the Christian Malayalee community is increasingly shifting towards English. She concluded that religion is not a variable in the process of language shift. Both the Hindu and Christian Malayalee community exhibited similar tendencies. Hence, religion was dismissed as a factor that accelerated language shift. This has a bearing on the present research. The participants of this study need not differ in their religious affiliations; instead interlocutors who are in constant contact with each other were selected for this study.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

Language Shift Among Singaporean Malayalee Families | A Comparative Study of Gojri Double Verb Constructions | Trade in the Madras Presidency, 1941 - 1947 A Doctoral Dissertation | Conceptualization of Nationalism through Language - An Analysis of Malaysian Situation | Status of Urdu and Efforts and Strategies for Its Inclusion in the Mainstream of Indian Life | Language Learning Strategies - An Evaluation of Compensatory Strategies | Marriage and Self in the Selected Works of Henry James and Jayakanthan | King Richard II - Analyzing the Political Discourse of Power | Engaging Autobiography as an Expression of Self - Maya Angelou's Autobiographies and Her Black Self | Onomatopoeic Words in Manipuri | Historical Growth of Short Stories in Tamil and Telugu - A Comparison | The Gujral Committee Report on Urdu | HOME PAGE of January 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Anitha Devi Pillai, Ph.D. Candidate
English Unit, Special Training Programme (MT)
National Institute of Education
1 Nanyang Walk
Singapore 637 616

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