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Mind Your Language to Avoid “Language Pollution”

A mere week before the Tamil Language Festival last year, a Facebook post highlighting a Tamil translation error went viral.

The incident involved information flyers put up by a wet market operator about the relocation of the market at Admiralty Place Mall, Singapore. Originally meant to be in the four official languages of English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, the operator made the mistake of using Hindi instead of Tamil. To make matters worse, the subsequent apology letter contained yet another error in Tamil, drawing more flak from the public.

Another notable incident involved the use of the wrong Chinese character displayed prominently at the launch of the 2017 Speak Mandarin Campaign. Instead of the Chinese character du 读 (to read), another character also pronounced du 渎(disrespect, or contempt) was used instead. It was an ironic and inexcusable error for a campaign seeking to promote Mandarin literacy.

The above incidents are only a couple in a series of language-related gaffes – a surprising trend given the country’s obsession with language and language standards.

"Language pollution" is more common than you think

Alongside ethnicity and religion, language is one area that Singaporeans treat with much sensitivity.

Bilingualism is encouraged and institutionalised with multiple universities – including SUSS – offering translation, language and interpretation courses today.

The Speak Good English movement, Speak Mandarin campaign, Malay Language Festival and Tamil Language Festival are examples of how the government is seeking to encourage literacy in multiple languages.

Yet, “language pollution” – or mistakes concerning the use of language – continue to persist in newspapers, print, and online. So, what should we do to stem this trend?

  • Establish a monitoring system


In order to develop effective measures to address the problem of language pollution, we must first be able to understand the source, extent and nature of the issue.

A robust monitoring system would help us to answer some pertinent questions such as: what type of language errors occur; how often do they occur; and what are their sources?

Once we have a clearer view of the issue at hand, we can go about devising measures to tackle language pollution more effectively. 

  • Implement the monitoring system



The implementation of the monitoring system calls for the involvement of all sectors of the community.

First and foremost, existing councils under the National Heritage Board’s Language Council Secretariat such as the Malay Language Council and Tamil Language Council could take up the challenge of overseeing their respective languages.

Since there is a much larger pool of Chinese language materials that may go beyond the scope of the Promote Mandarin Council, the task of monitoring could be assigned to the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language, whose mission is to conduct research on matters related to the learning and teaching of the Chinese language.

Through the Internet and social media, the public can also play a much more active role in spotting and channelling language and translation errors to the appropriate councils. Furthermore, schools could encourage students to take part in monitoring exercises and act as “language scouts”.

Involving the public not only means that language errors are more likely to be spotted and resolved, but could also nurture a sense of civic responsibility.

  • Standardise checks and audits


The Speak Mandarin Campaign and wet market information flyer gaffes resulted from lapses in checks and audits.

Mistakes happen, but an effective and direct solution would simply be to make proofreading and linguistic auditing part of the standard operating procedure.

These efforts will be supported by the monitoring system and will help us to understand where language and translation errors are most likely to occur in the first place, in order to direct additional resources to check the materials where needed.

Language - why we must protect it

Language is more than something that we speak, especially in Singapore where the many languages we speak connect us to our cultural heritage and the rest of the world.

With constant vigilance and effort from organisations that produce language materials and individual citizens alike, we can ensure that we use our official languages with the respect, care and conscientiousness they deserve.

This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: "Time to put a full stop to language mistakes" by Professor Eddie Kuo, Academic Advisor, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).


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