Defining 'mother tongue': An interview with Ruanni Tupas

by on October 26, 2015

Gabriel Lee speaks to Dr. Ruanni Tupas, an Assistant Professor at the English Language and Literature Academic Group of the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore. Dr. Tupas is a member of the Executive Committee of the Singapore Association for Applied Linguistics and holds multiple awards for teaching. He was the 2009 recipient of the Andrew Gonzalez Distinguished Professorial Chair, awarded by the Linguistic society of the Philippines which has also elevated him to honorary membership. He is an applied sociolinguist who is interested in how language sustains and transforms inequalities in education.

How many languages do you speak?

I mainly speak English and three Philippine languages. My mother tongue is Aklanon, my regional language is Ilonggo, and I also speak Tagalog (or Filipino, the national language).

Why do you identify yourself with sociolinguistics? Why are you focusing on this field?

It’s fascinating. Well, I’m interested in languages, and to me, sociolinguistics gives me the opportunity to study the world, to study people. Studying languages is studying issues of globalisation, and issues of discrimination that may have nothing to do with language as well. It’s also talking about social policies which may not necessarily be associated with languages. The moment we study language in use, it always becomes implicated in other issues in society, like development issues, for example. Inequality is not just shaped by language, it is shaped by many things. Sociolinguistics allows me to go beyond the study of languages and to study the world, people, and politics. Sociolinguistics reminds me that what we do in the classroom is never shielded from realities outside. In fact, the classroom is to me constitutive of dynamics of inequalities in the world. It would be a shame if we as teachers believe that there is no politics in what we do in the classroom, and sociolinguistics reminds us always that every time we open our mouth in class, we are engaged in a politics of language. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we as teachers are politicized human beings, and it is important for us to be keenly aware of this so that we cannot be swallowed up by dominant politics and ideologies.  We need to engage—and not escape from—them.

So why do you focus on inequality? Do you feel a personal need to look into it or was there something that influenced you to look into inequality?

It’s a very personal experience. I studied English Language back in the Philippines and I realised that the theories that I was learning couldn’t capture who I was, who I am. The theories idealised languages and were made to theorise monolingual speakers. And as I said, I’m Aklanon, Ilonggo, and also Filipino. So then, who am I as a speaker of these languages? Modern linguistic theories isolated me from my multilingual realities and experiences. They could not help me know myself better as a multilingual speaker. In fact, I always felt then the theories devalued my multilinguality so deep inside I felt terrible. My professors could attest to this discomfort and anger.

Initially, I felt a need to go beyond the theories that I was learning and that led me into critical pedagogy, critical language studies, critical discourse analysis. These then helped me see myself as someone speaking these languages—which then helped myself see why my Aklanon is not privileged, why Ilonggo is not privileged (although still relatively more powerful than Aklanon), and so on.

There is an increasing number of Singaporeans who are more fluent in English than their assigned ‘mother tongues’. What do you think about recognising English as a mother tongue for Singaporeans in place of the current ‘mother tongues’?

Well, it is a very emotional issue, and even the very idea of mother tongue refers to very different things as well. Does it mean it is the first language? Or the language that you were born into? Or is it a language you feel emotional attachment to? I think for me I’m not in a position to say it should be a mother tongue for Singaporeans, but what I can say is it, at least sociolinguistically, it has enough rationalisation to say that if English is your first language, something that you were born into and it is the language that you use at home, then it can usefully be packaged as a mother tongue.

Now, if you look at the research, for the past two decades in Singapore—even Lionel Wee (linguistics professor at the National University of Singapore) and a few other scholars—they have already captured some of these issues, especially among the Eurasian community. In the 90’s, and even more recently, they have tried to make sense of  English as a mother tongue and why many of Singaporean claim it as their mother tongue and some reject it as such. But then, it complicates the situation because everyone else might want that to be their mother tongue as well. Which is why I think that I’m not in a position to say that it should not be their mother tongue because this is how you define it. To me it’s more like how is it possible for one policy to address all of these emerging issues?

Language policies need to evolve—not just in Singapore—any policy is a product of its time, and as it moves along, society changes as well. The linguistic ecology also changes. So in a sense, it is how this policy captures these transformations in society. I’m more interested in that, rather than simply whether it should be your mother tongue.

People actually perceive that it is very individual and personal. It may be the first language you’re most comfortable with. But you don’t want to own it. It’s very difficult. I see some language education policies opening up. For example, I think your scholars, or even educational experts are allowed to promote the use of English to teach mother tongues. So, in that case it’s still part of this whole idea of the bilingual policy, whereby you open up the system to other opportunities, other ways of looking at the language issue. So it’s a big thing to me to say that you can use English to supplement the teaching of mother tongue. What is important is for policies to constantly evolve and remain relevant, otherwise they remain stagnant and increasingly useless.

So what are your hopes for the linguistic landscape of Singapore in the future?

I hope that the bilingual policy goes back to its original vision of additive bilingualism, whereby people actually learn the two languages side-by-side. There is a pattern emerging today—you see, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, if things continue this way, you will most likely have a very English-dominant society. Something needs to be done with the other languages. You can even encourage communities and certain groups to teach and learn their own mother tongues. I’m thinking, also, in terms of the official languages, as you can see, we’re losing it. It doesn’t sound like it on the surface, but it looks like it. Language policies, even with good intentions, may be additive on paper but, in reality, is actually subtractive. As one learns a second language, she or he is actually losing the first one. It shouldn’t be like this, right? It should be as we learn another language, we should try to keep what we already have. That’s additive.

If you look at the Department of Statistics Singapore data, you will find that my statements are not born out of imagination. I would like to think that this is something the government is thinking about how to go about it because the figure is there, the pattern is there.

With globalisation and modernisation, more people are trying to learn third languages as well. Do you think people are choosing these third languages based on elitism or, maybe, based on interest? Or do you think they’re doing the economical thing?

Well, I think it is also being pragmatic, so to speak. It is also a privilege to learn a third language and so on. It really depends on the learner’s trajectories in life. In life, it is not so much how many languages one learns, but what languages he or she is learning, and the kinds of varieties as well. We may all be multilingual, but my multilingualism may be privileged, and not yours.  As what I said in my sharing session, we must confront inequalities of multilingualism.

If you were to learn another language, what would it be?

Well, I initially started with Spanish in the university, so I could potentially go back to it,  but I’d never really used it. So it would be Spanish.

Did you choose it out of interest or because of economical value?

Well, it’s both. Speaking Spanish would give you access to the Spanish-speaking world—it’s a huge world. Culturally and economically. That, and, of course, the fact that I find Spanish easy to learn, because, you know, many of the words in our languages are already Spanish words. The Philippines was colonised for more than 300 years by the Spanish, by Spain. I remember growing up counting in Spanish: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco. So, I mean, in Ilonggo, or my first language Aklanon, I learnt to count in Spanish because I thought it’s all—we all thought—it was the way to count.  Of course, the lexicon of Philippine languages is also very much influenced by Spanish.

How do you reconcile culture and identity in Singapore, with regard to languages?

Let us look at it from the vantage point of everyday life (‘the ground’). It’s no longer tenable to use the normal, basic demarcation between the ‘mother tongues’ and English because along the way, English has taken on identities as well. So, I think, to me, we should recognise that. If you really mean it, if you really mean to say English is an inter-ethnic language, then it is bound to take on cultural identity. The work of Viniti Vaish is a compelling one because it captures conversations in mundane places like the void deck. Here languages are fluid and refuse to be demarcated by artificial boundaries. And if you’re talking about Singapore identity, then how are you going to cut across the different ethnicities and languages? It is, of course, English. And if you look at English on the ground, if you talk about English in the formal sense, that’s where you have all of these other languages coming together, and all of these people from different groups actually using each other’s words and phrases, to cross boundaries.

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