(Un)common communities: An interview with Bhajan Singh and Harjinder Kaur

by on September 1, 2015

Kevin Martens Wong speaks to Dr Bhajan Singh and Dr Harjinder Kaur from the Board of Teaching and Testing of South Asian Languages (BTTSAL) in Singapore. BTTSAL handles the teaching and testing of five languages that are not official languages in Singapore: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu — sometimes called the Non-Tamil Indian languages (NTIL). Dr Singh is BTTSAL’s founder and head, and Dr Kaur works with him to develop the common syllabus and common examination for the five languages, the first in the world.


Why these five languages in particular? I understand that they’re not the only five ‘community’ languages, so to speak.

Dr Singh: I suppose these five community groups took the initiative to take it up with the government. In fact, there’s a very big Malayali community as well, for example, but the Malayalis carried on studying Tamil. Tamil isn’t their language, their language is Malayalam, but I suppose they could manage. Tamil is a Dravidian language, and many of these other groups like the Malayalis and the Kannadigas speak Dravidian languages that are more akin to Tamil. Whereas Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, and Hindi — these four are Sanskrit based. Even Urdu has roots in Sanskrit, as well as the Middle East, of course.

So there were a number of students who were from Bengali-, Gujarati-, Hindi-, Punjabi-, and Urdu-speaking communities, and they all had to choose from one of the three official mother tongues — there were no exemptions, and they had to do either Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. I did Malay, for example, in the sixties. As you’re aware, Singapore has probably the most rigorous mother tongue policy in the world, and a lot depends on grades. So, there was this feeling among these minority communities that their children were being disadvantaged in having to do a mother tongue which was not their mother tongue. Naturally, this affected their academic performance, and there were numerous representations by parents and community leaders to the government. So in 1989, Dr Tony Tan, the then-Minister of Education, announced that these five communities could prepare their own children and they could do these languages at O-Level and A-Level (British-based educational qualifications conferred in Singapore).

So it’s just that the Malayalam community weren’t interested at the time?

Dr Singh: Yes, initially. Later on, about four or five years after, they set up their own organisation, and even wrote to the Ministry. So now they’re still in the negotiating phase, because there are a lot of requirements to be met. But once they join, they’re accepted, they’ll be streamlined with us. The system is there already. You can have 20 languages joining. No issue.

Dr Kaur: Those who are more inclined not to do Tamil may also do Malay; some Malayali kids also opt for Hindi, because it’s a national language in India, and they may want to go back and do it.

Dr Singh: It’s also partially political. A lot of people from the community were up in important positions at the time we started this and politically some of them felt it was wiser to continue doing Tamil. But the people who are pushing for this are the new immigrants.

How does Tamil fit into the picture? I’ve noticed some schools don’t offer Tamil. 

Dr Kaur: The moment there are Tamil students and there are enough numbers, the Planning Division actually allocates schools to open a class. So if a school isn’t offering Tamil, it means in that school’s area, the population of school-going Tamil students may have gone down. But it may be an older age group of Tamil speakers living there, or they’re not having children — it’s these kinds of things, the demographics, that the State and the Planning Division study all the time. But if you talk about other languages like Nepali, Tagalog — these are policy issues which at our level we don’t touch.

What was the impetus for BTTSAL, then? Why a centralised organisation?

Dr Singh: Well, after this, there were nine organisations at that point in time who had their own tests and so on, and they would send the marks on to the child’s school, but the school would say, “No, sorry, we can’t recognise your marks, we don’t know which uncle or which auntie is teaching them, and we don’t know how your examination papers were set, whether the paper is valid”. So the marks of these children who started studying these languages from 1990 could not be recognised at Primary 1, Primary 2, Primary 3, etc. (equivalent to grades 1 to 3 in the American system) which affected their progression. So that was a burning issue.

So in 1998 I was a school principal, and I was trying to do something for the Punjabi language. I was also a chief examiner with the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry told me, we can’t do anything for one language. Whatever the country does, the nation does, and it must be for all the other languages. I also happened to be involved in 1991 in setting up SINDA (a self-help group for the Indian community in Singapore), and between 1991 and 1997 I had gotten to meet a lot of these other communities. So after hearing this from the ministry, I suggested to them, “Look, the ministry is not going to recognise any one language or the examinations of any one group, unless we work together.” So in 1998 we started thinking of some kind of a common attempt. We started with the Primary 4 examination — in those days we still had EM1, EM2, and EM3 streaming (a system which channelled students of different academic capabilities into different pedagogical paths) and that was traumatic for especially children who were doing some other mother tongue. Between 1998 and 2001 we piloted this, contrary to all expectations — nobody thought it was possible to do a common examination! The then-Director of Examinations, Seah Giak Choo, met me — I knew her as a principal — she said Bhajan, it’s not possible. You can’t have common exams for five different languages. I said we’ve done it, and we’ll keep doing it.

But why should people listen to me? I mean, they’re all leaders in their own right. So finally we decided 2002 to set up this board, and that gave us some organisation structure so that we could get things done. But we had no money. From 2002 to 2008 I had to get donations to fund the programme. Fortunately at that point in time I was also the leader of the Sikh community, and the founder-chairman of the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation. So I had access to resources, and donors, and all that.

Since we were stubborn enough to pursue the thing — I told Giak Choo, look, we’re going to persevere, and we’re going to continue. Finally in 2006 they said okay, you send us your NTIL common examination results for PSLE, O-Level and A-Level for the years 2003, 2004, and 2005. And they did a correlation with the University of Cambridge examinations, and there was a good correlation. At the same time, at the end of 2006 I decided to meet up with the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and I told him about the plight of our communities — our resources were running out, and many of us were getting on in age. And he was surprised that we weren’t getting enough support. So in March, after speaking to Minister Tharman, who was Minister for Education, they finally recognised our examinations.

How do you do a common examination?

Dr Singh: Of course, it’s a very complex system – you first prepare the papers in English, and then you translate them into the other five languages, and then you see what items work and don’t work, and make adjustments. But at the end of the day it’s workable because you can have the same composition and comprehension topics, and these two are the core components of examining written language, together with things like close passage. Grammar items we found were surprisingly the same — every language has a noun, a verb, an adjective, and it’s a question of the structure differing, but they can still translate. The only component we had to leave to the individual languages was idioms and proverbs, which may be culture-specific — but that also, as time went on, we found there were parallels. So it’s a fantastic piece of work, actually.

How did parents respond to the new common examination?

Dr Singh: Well, after the examinations were recognised, parents’ expectations were of course raised, and they became more alert about, okay, this is being examined and that is being recognised, so what is being taught? So we had a massive issue in 2007 when parents began to scrutinise what was being taught to their children and how it was being taught. At that point in time in 2007, everybody was teaching whatever they wanted. They got material from Pakistan, from Bangladesh, from India — there was no local material. Material being used at P4 level was actually S1 material, or S2 material was actually P5 material. There was no standardisation, and there were lots of complaints. We had numerous discussions with Ho Ping, the director of Curriculum and the Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD), and I said give us a bit of time. I sat down with all these groups and said, look, there is a possibility that since we have a common exam we can have a common curriculum. So in 2008 we started this massive journey of producing a common curriculum for five languages.

Wow. A common curriculum!

Dr Singh: Yes. Producing a common examination is only a 10-page document, but for a common curriculum – if it’s 10 levels, and you take four or five core books per level, it’s 50. And 50 books times five languages is 250. Of course, we delegated many tasks to the community groups, but there was a lot of variation. Communities can be very unstable. They can have their own culture, objectives, and politics, and that increasingly is going to infringe on the education process. I wrote to the Minister of Education four years ago. I said look, this model cannot work. And so the Ministry attached to us their own curriculum expert. I was very fortunate, I had with me one assistant director of education, who was in charge of curriculum for German, Japanese, French, Tamil, and Malay — Dr Harjinder Kaur. So she has basically been a tremendous source of expertise. Of course, my own training is in curriculum as well. I’ve done curriculum in leadership, creativity, and values, and I’m a consultant with an international school in Thailand. I also did some post-graduate work in curriculum. So the two of us have been managing.

Then what happened was we asked each language group to help us by appointing a specialist. So I managed to put together a team of ten specialist officers from the five languages. So the 2008 review was done tightly with this team. We didn’t leave it to the community groups, we just worked with this team of mother tongue specialist officers. We have common oral and common listening — we use studio recordings, and we use CDs and digital recorders in line with what the Singapore Examinations and Assessments Board (SEAB) does. Whatever SEAB does, we do the same. In fact, we have a common portal for the five languages — that’s also world’s number one. Whatever is being done is world’s number one. There is no common examination system for five languages. In my work in Thailand, I work extensively with the Council of International Schools and the United Kingdom Examination Boards. Not one university prepared to do a common examination for five languages. So this is the first in the world.

Now I’ve recommended to the ministry that they take over. They’re going to do it soon and appoint a CO.

Do you see other countries moving towards this system?

Dr Singh: They have their own model, but I think they have remained pretty distinct from each other. The forces of nationalism are too strong. Here, of course, they also came to the fore. It happens all the time.

How strong are each of these languages in Singapore? 

Dr Singh: The biggest is Hindi, with 5,000 students. Punjabi and Bengali are next and currently neck and neck, but I believe Bengali has slightly more. Urdu is number four, and Gujarati is very small indeed. But you know Singapore’s lingua franca is English. Almost every language group has the same problem — English-speaking parents. Except Hindi and Bengali. Many speakers are Permanent Residents or foreign nationals, and are new arrivals, so there you have Hindi- and Bengali-speaking parents. But Punjabi, for example — the community has been here more than a century, so basically Punjabi families are very cosmopolitan, and most homes are English-speaking. That’s one of the problems with language learning.

Do you find the next generation in the communities motivated to learn their community languages?


Dr Singh: In Singapore’s context, the motivation comes from the grades. It’s a very positive thing, but of course you’re going to have people fall by the wayside. On the other hand, if you don’t have a policy like this, the languages will fall by the wayside. So you’ve got to weigh up pros and cons. But I think this is a model other countries can learn from. One of the things happening throughout the world is deculturalisation, and the rule of convergence. What has happened in countries like the United States is happening in Singapore and Malaysia and other countries as well. But we’ve of course tried to mitigate that somewhat through the common portal, and by going into literature.

Dr Kaur: I term some of them heritage languages, Punjabi especially. Not Hindi and Urdu, though, because they’ve become the national languages of India and Pakistan, at the international level they have gained prominence over the years due to this policy. Punjabi is a heritage language, Gujarati may also be. That was my treatment of my research — the impact of it on our third, fourth generation migrant students. We have a lot of incoming migrants who do these languages, and for them it is still near home, because it’s their lingua franca. They grow up with that language. But for our Singapore children, this language is almost a foreign language — it can be a third, almost fourth language. But I did not want to term it a foreign language, because foreign languages in Singapore are German, French, and Japanese. For many migrants all over the world, their own language which was their mother tongue becomes a heritage language. They learn it because it takes them back to their roots.

I understand that teaching a heritage language is quite different from teaching a mother tongue. Did that present any considerations or challenges for the team?

Dr Kaur: You have to see what you have in the continuum of students’ abilities and their backgrounds. The teacher will definitely have to modify and do differentiated instruction, because within a class you’ll have first-generation migrants, second-generation, and so on. My research showed that there is a seven-scale gradation for Punjabi, for example and for Hindi it may be even more. And when you talk about language learning skills — reading, writing, listening, and speaking — internationally, lots of research has been done, so we use those strategies to help the teachers. But again, I think if the National Institute of Education (NIE) can train them, the time that they will have for practicing these things will come to better use. They’ve already started looking at it, and when it happens, it will be a big breakthrough.

Dr Singh: That was part of the reason why we came up with the common syllabus for the five languages, because NIE didn’t know how to proceed with training without it. That’s another first.

Dr Kaur: There’s a lot that needs to be done in Singapore. And linguistics-wise, when we came up with the common curriculum, they are similarities, yes. When you look at Hindi and Punjabi, you’ll see similarities; when you look at Bengali and Hindi, you’ll see a different set of similarities. It’s like a web.

Do you think this model only works with related languages, though? What about English and Mandarin, for example?

Dr Kaur: In Singapore, we already do have a lot of features that are common for the national examinations.

Dr Singh: They have common features, but they’re not a common examination as of yet. We have common marking, common grading system; everything is parallel and comparable. But I think eventually, we’ll move closer to a common examination for the national languages as well.

Dr Kaur: Why we don’t do it for English it’s because English is considered a first language. It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s the medium for the mainstream, and so we need to bench it higher. I suppose in countries where it’s going to be treated on par with Mandarin, however, then I think it might happen.

What about other community languages like Kristang?

Dr Singh: Well, there is rising awareness in other communities about the need to protect these parts of their cultures. I’m sure other community groups may look at our model, and I’m sure the Ministry will look at each language and evaluate it based on its own merit as to whether it can join the system. But don’t give up. If you keep at it, and you believe in it, you can make it work. The support of the community, the materials, the teachers — they will all come. But you must persevere.

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For more on the work of Dr Singh and Dr Kaur, check out the BTTSAL website, where you’ll find links to the shared language portal, the various community groups working with BTTSAL, and much more.

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