Back to the Roots : Family Literacy Practices of Two Eight-Year-Old English-Punjabi Bilinguals

Parwinder Singh Grewal

English Language Honours AE, NIE, 2004


The OB markers of ethnic and cultural identity in Singapore are constantly blurred by a set of paradoxes. On one hand, it is deemed crucial to maintain a minority language such as Punjabi to facilitate the transmission of cultural and ethnic values. On the other hand, it seems necessary to demolish social and linguistic barriers in a multicultural setting, and to adapt to the culturally and linguistically plural society via English, the language of economy and wider communication. As a result, this unique multilingual state is characterised by massive language shifts away from a multiplicity of languages affecting all ethnic groups. A study by Dilpreet (2003) highlights that Punjabi is experiencing rapid language shift, leading to significant gaps between generations in terms of language use, cultural make-up and religious orientation.

It is imperative, therefore, to study family literacy practices of young bilingual English-Punjabi learners to sieve out practices that support the learning of Punjabi, taking into account the influences of the Punjabi culture and the Sikh religion. The current research adopts an integrated multi-method case-study approach of two three-generation Punjabi families that have registered positive influence on the Punjabi literacy development in their children. Extensive participant observations, ethnographic interviews and artefact collections are employed in order to assess patterns of language use, Punjabi literacy practices and the attendant preceptors of ethnic and religious identity that can contribute to language maintenance! . Results points towards a community based recovery of the Punjabi language, brought about largely through its recognition as an official mother tongue. An attempt is made at a model of Punjabi language maintenance, taking into account the multitude means through which family literacy practices manifest themselves. The constructs of culture and religion that form the backbone of this model reinforce the suggested Back to the Roots approach in maintaining the Punjabi language in Singapore.