Review of Language, Society and Education in Singapore
Chapters/Sections on Part II, Language in Society

Handout for SARS 523,
Multilingual Education in South/Southeast Asia
Review of Chapter 8, Language Maintenance and Language Shift in the Tamil-English Community
Vanithamani Saravanan

  1. Introduction
  2. Begins by describing the situation as the Tamil-English Community, not the Tamil community. In fact she is admitting that the situation in the so-called Tamil community is one of shift, with very little maintenance, as she will show. This is the only article in this compendium that actually declares this to be the case; in general in Singapore language shift since it is not part of the planned policy, is not dignified by giving it any attention.

    She raises the following issues:

  • Language Use Surveys
  • Despite planning measures and lg. maintenance measures, surveys of use show decline of Tamil, from generation to generation. Table 8.1:

    Language Survey (of lg. use) among Tamil-English bilinguals. (Source: Census of Singapore, 1970, 1980, 1990).

      1970 1980 1990
    Tamil 27.1 17.8 18.3
    Tamil and English 19.1 29.5 45.1
    English 28.6 21.0 33.0
    Malay 2.6 1.8 3.8
    English and Malay 9.4 16.0 27.0

    In Singapore since 1970, literacy supposedly increased during this period, since second-lg. learning (of the so-called "mother tongue" has become compulsory) but in fact this has not resulted in increased use of Tamil as a spoken language.

    Age 1970



















    60 and above






    Table 8.2 Age-specific literacy in Tamil or Tamil and English among literate Indian Singaporeans in 1970 and 1980 (percentages).

    These figures do show an increase in literacy, but they do not show an increase in use of Tamil. In 1990, principal family langauge was 43.7% though 64% of Indians are of Tamil-speaking origin. Number of Indian households speaking predominantly English increased to 34.8%, Malay to 13.5% with Tamil reduced. (Other Indians speak other Indian languages, Indo-Aryan or Dravidian.) 1990 census shows shift to English in all groups, largest shift being among Chinese and Tamils. Looking at specific domains, other surveys shows decline in play environment, social and friendship domains also declining. Language use data do not bear out the literacy increase data.

      1980 1990
    English 24.3 34.8
    Malay 8.6 13.5
    Tamil 52.6 43.7

    Table 8.3: Predominant Household Language, Tamils and Malays (percentages)

  • The Historical Context
  • Tamils came to Singapore and Malaysia to work on plantations, displacing their usual linguistic situation. Two kinds of Tamils came:

    They came in an indentured-labor system mainly in the 1930's and later (after War) in 1940's to work in harbor, transport and conservancy systems, and to construct roads and railways. If any had English high-school education they could work in British Navy and military bases. After plantation industry declined in Singapore (tho not in Malaysia) workers moved over into transportation, conservancy and construction. (Many now working as security guards, sweepers/cleaners, bus drivers, etc.)

    Attitudes about language: Because of the bifurcation of the two categories above, Tamil as a home language became linked with the lowest socio-economic class, and English-educated Tamils began to abandon Tamil, which some referred to as a "coolie language." Educated people found it easier to move up into semi- and professional classes through English education; uneducated found themselves stuck in lower jobs and did not see room to advance. (Cf. article by Marimuttu in Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, A. Mani ed.) Their status was stigmatized and continues to be, esp. by English-educated, who do not want to be associated with the "coolies" ("lokal', "paLenge"). These people remain primarily monolingual (or perhaps speak some Malay; more so if they are Muslim) despite the English education track in schools. Many leave school early, after the streaming process after middle school.

    Saravanan quotes some of the stigmatized labels used for these people: lokal, paLenge, maTTam, piDikkaada muTTaaL. They are streamed into the technological sciences and discouraged from abstract subjects. Thus Tamils have chosen, or have chosen for them, two paths: the less educated continue on a path of low socioeconomic outcome, and low prestige; the ones who can escape do so and leave the language behind.

  • Language Loyalty and Language Attitudes
  • Attitudinal and affective behavior of the Tamil community towards English and Tamil. VS Asks the following questions:

    last modified 4/9/99