Singlish Conversations

January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru

 Introduction:  The following are excerpts from two emails I sent to various Americans in response to the question: “What do Singaporeans Speak?”  My replies have been left unedited for style, grammar and spelling.

> but I guess I don’t read in whatever you speak in
> Singapore (don’t tell me it’s English ) )

There isn’t really a simple answer to the question: “What do people in Singapore speak?”, although if there was one, it would be – English )

Now this is amusing ) Almost every time I’ve been to the States (about a half-dozen times over the years), I get comments like: “Wow, where did you learn to speak English so well?”, and others like it. I always think, “Are they saying it sort of condescendingly? – As in ‘Look, the Asian speaks our language!’” Because the truth is, English is my ‘mother-tongue’ and it used to be odd for me to imagine that other Asians weren’t fluent in English… You see, English is the language of instruction in virtually all schools here (for all non-language classes) from kindergarten up, although everyone is required to take at least ten (count ‘em) years of another language from grade school till high school (parents’ decisions correspond largely to race, although not necessarily – generally, Indians learn Tamil, Punjabi, Sanskrit etc, Malays take Bahasa Malayu, Chinese take Mandarin, and Eurasians/Caucasians take French/German/Malay/Japanese…), and a goodly portion of the brighter kids take a third language for up to six years before college.

So what do we speak in Singapore, which has four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil)? Well, many of the Chinese speak Mandarin Chinese as their ‘mother-tongue’ (with which they are most comfortable) or any of a variety of Chinese dialects (and many people speak a number of these fluently, especially older Singaporeans), including Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka etc. People often babble in their own languages in a racially homogenous group, e.g., a group of Malays friends will mostly converse in Malay, with a sprinkling of English. But in a racially diverse setting, people will just naturally stick to English.

But speaking of speaking a mixture of languages, that brings me to the topic of ‘Singlish’, or our own colloquial strain/dialect of English, which has developed as a nationally understood blend of words, phrases and expressions borrowed and adapted from various languages, structured with a very truncated and mangled version of English grammar/syntax, spoken with the lilting, sing-song manner of Malay, characterised by a very staccato sort of pronunciation, and punctuated with Chinese-style exclamations (I think they are known as ‘particles’ to linguists). The government has spoken out against the use of Singlish a couple of times (using the pejorative term ‘broken-English’ interchangeably with ‘Singlish’), fearing that the pervasive use of Singlish would erode our economic competitive advantage (the fact that everyone understands/speaks English is certainly one of the things that help us regularly attract the highest per capita FDI in the world). At the same time, there is a vocal (pun not intended) portion of Singaporeans who think that we should be proud of our national identity, and celebrate what makes our culture unique.

In any case, the ‘legitimacy’ of Singlish has been growing, with a Japanese-Singlish dictionary being published (in Japan) in the last couple of years, and quite a number of linguists pointing out that Singlish has all the characteristics of a stable, full-fledged English dialect… In fact, some of my seniors at Harvard told me that they used to be invited to a “Dialects of English” lecture every term to just read something or converse in front of the entire class to ‘demonstrate’ Singlish. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having to do that, except I’ve heard that that professor has left the College. )

> I’d love to talk to you more about the way people interact in all the different languages,
> how they influence the culture, and everything.
> I’m especially interested to know whether or not english is the “main” language
> spoken out of basic necessity and commonness,
> and if the result is that there’s no particular “english singaporean” subculture.
What do you mean by “particular ‘english singaporean’ subculture”? If you’re referring to “Singlish”, a purist would note that there are different strains and degrees of ’singlish’, in the way its spoken and its similarity to “Queen’s English” (which is what we’re taught in school).

In fact, there were political reasons as to why English was chosen as the language of instruction/administration in Singapore after we gained independence from the British Empire (aside from the economic ones I mentioned previously). Being a multicultural nation – Chinese (76.5%); Malays (13.8%); Indians (8.1%); Others (1.6%), it was important for then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to make sure that no one could accuse the infant government of being unfair to any one racial group (e.g., forcing the majority Chinese population to speak Malay or the *indigenous* Malays to speak Mandarin), which might result in violent civil unrest. So English was the solution, since then everyone was put on a level playing field, linguistically, i.e., equally (dis)advantaged. Interestingly, ex-PM Lee himself is english-speaking, and was educated at Cambridge, England.

Today, ordinary Singaporeans tend to associate high proficiency in English with:

a) high intelligence (a vestige of colonial envy of the west?)
b) privileged background (albeit that most of Singapore is resoundingly middle class)
c) a bright future (in employment and otherwise)
d) all of the above

But bilingualism is even more highly valued (particularly Mandarin and English), and linguists (who speak several Chinese dialects, or Japanese or Malay) are both well-respected and in-demand, since being able to converse in a language that a customer/patient/client feels most comfortable in is potentially very valuable (particularly in a country with 7.6m tourists annually, compared to our 4.16m population).

Actually, two decades of national policy to encourage all Chinese to speak Mandarin has all but destroyed our rich national culture of Chinese dialects, to the extent that many young Singaporean Chinese are no longer able to understand Beijing Opera, Cantonese movies (from Hong Kong), or even their grandparents, who may speak little English or Mandarin. Again, the reasons for this move were political, as in earlier days the Chinese would be politically aligned by their dialect groups, and there would be bloody clashes and disputes (a bit like the situation within India, with the Sikhs and the Indians). Anyway, the government’s solution was to try and find common ground and forge stronger understanding amongst the Chinese by making everyone speak Mandarin, and radio and television shows in dialect were taken off the air, to be replaced with mandarin ones. (Interesting trivia: as a result of the reunification of the written Chinese script by Shih Huang Di, the first emperor of China, centuries ago, all Chinese dialects are written the same way, although they are pronounced very differently. So a 1960s radio news broadcast would be read by a number of different people in different dialects from the same written script, though none of the newsreaders could understand each other in conversation ))

I guess the moral is that people have to be able to talk to one another in a common language to forge a strong social compact?

Last thing to mention – there are now last-ditch efforts to revive and preserve the use of dialects in Singapore, but most people believe its a lost cause – once the chain of language use and transmission from mother to child is broken, a certain richness of the language will be lost, and presently there are few compelling economic/political/cultural reasons likely to motivate people to learn them… (same story with the thousands of other fading languages/dialects globally).

Jason S. Yeo, Feb-Apr 2003

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