December 1999

Speak good English




As if there aren't enough government campaigns in Singapore, year 2000 will see the addition of another one in our calendar, the Speak Good English Campaign.

Earlier in 1999, the Prime Minister spoke about his concern regarding the spread of Singlish, and the decline of Standard English in Singapore. He said that for an economy that must depend on international links to progress, it would be foolish to regress to speaking a patois which no one else outside Singapore could understand. It was imperative that Singaporeans be able to speak and write Standard English, which any other English-speaking person in the world could comprehend. 


I shall be forthright here: I agree with the objective. However, I have mixed feelings about the way the debate about poor English standards has gone so far. My concern is that I hear a lot of "should". We should do this. We should not do that. It's all very well to state the goals, but it is equally important to understand why the situation is the way it is, and whether the goals are achievable given the circumstances, and if so, at what cost.

Why do we have so much Singlish? And what will it take to move from Singlish to Standard English? 

Here ah, English is only second language one

I suspect that somewhere in this debate, there is a misassumption: that in the past we had a higher standard of English in Singapore, and recently there has been a decline. Related to this is another misassumption held by some people: that English is the main language in Singapore.

If you listen to the conversations around you whenever you're in a fast food restaurant, supermarket or the metro ("MRT" in Singapore-speak) you will immediately realise that English is nowhere near being the primary language among Singaporeans. I would say that the various forms of Chinese predominate, except perhaps in selected areas like the financial district. There is also a fair amount of Malay and other languages. At the same time, you will notice that people tend to use a mix, e.g. Mandarin-Hokkien, Mandarin-Singlish, Singlish-Malay, often shifting between languages in the same breath. One does not often encounter people using pure Singlish (i.e. without Chinese or Malay admixture), even less often, pure Standard English.

Therefore, we cannot place English as a 'primary language' in the Singapore context, except for a small minority, where by 'primary language', I mean the language a person uses more frequently than any other, in which he is most comfortable; the language one's thoughts are processed in. The reality is that, in terms of usage, English is mainly a second language for Singaporeans (though we tend to confuse this with the fact that in school subjects, we describe English as the first language). But if English occupies the second language position for the majority of Singaporeans, is it fair to expect that Singaporeans should have a command of English equal to native English speakers in Canada or England? Should we be surprised or disappointed that Singaporeans do not speak Standard English?

Starting was link pidgin, but now badge of identity already

Singlish first began as an inter-communal link language here [1]. It was, and still is, the language which all linguistic groups resort to when trying to communicate with each other. Because words strike even an inattentive ear, while grammar requires attention to be noticed, people pick up the words, not knowing to pick up the grammar of English. So when they need to speak inter-communally, they throw in the English words they know, but string them together using the only sentence structures they are familiar with: their own vernacular. Thus the Singlish spoken by Malays is in many ways different from that spoken by the Chinese, but not too different that we cannot catch each other's meaning.

The other thing about a link language is that as one of its virtues, it should also be a class-leveller. It must bridge not just linguistic divides, but class divides too. What tends to happen is that those who are able to speak good English step down to Singlish when speaking to those who can't handle good English, in order to maintain rapport. Otherwise, especially with a "colonial language" like English, the speaker who insists on using the Queen's English will sound insufferably uppity, and will never win anyone's cooperation.

As the fluency in Chinese and Malay declined -- and yes, the standard of Chinese and Malay as spoken in Singapore is falling with each passing year -- Singlish began to fill the gap. More and more people now use Singlish intra-communally. Thus you see Chinese-race shop assistants speaking Singlish to Chinese-race customers. In such situations, it is possible to admix Chinese words and phrases within Singlish, since both parties will understand. Likewise, when a Tamil teenager speaks to another Tamil boy, he often speaks in a mix of Singlish and Tamil. This accounts for the babel one hears in our trains, buses, cafés and shops.

In addition, a new Singapore identity has begun to emerge. As a badge of identity, Singlish is sans pareil. It has no equal. It is the only thing that is widely shared and uniquely Singaporean. So this patois has been gaining prestige in addition to its wide currency, to the extent that even when some can use Standard English, they still prefer to use Singlish. 


Explanatory notes for non-Singaporean readers:

Standard English - a form of English that observes the grammatical rules and usage patterns generally accepted by educated persons in native-English-speaking countries. The written form should be virtually indistinguishable from correct English as written in those countries. The spoken form may include pronunciation, accent and lilt features unique to Singapore, but not so pronounced that others cannot understand what we're saying.

Singlish - is a kind of English lah, but got many feature which are local. Nearly always, we never follow the grammar one. For example, John can say, "Lisa have ever went my home before, but until now ah, she no hope one, she cannot remember my address." Or Swee Keng can ask her friend, "Eh, last night you got see television or not? The show so funny. Aiyoh, I laugh until my stomach painful."

What make our Singlish like that, one? Because the Chinese got influence on it. For example, many Singaporeans ah, they never take bus one. They sit bus. They sit number ninety-five or number two-three-eight. 

Or sometimes they say, "last year my sis buy a house on the thirteen floor and for sure must have a big television set in the hall." House on the thirteen floor? Actually what the angmoh call apartment. Hall? What angmoh call living room. In Chinese, we call it "ting", so translate as "hall" lah. 

Actually ah, can't blame us for the standard of English, I mean, when my mother, he marry my father that time, she shock. Wahlau, she say, my father whole family no one speak English. In fact, my grandfather that generation never go school. So now consider progress already, at least our generation we got speak English.

Singlish also use many word from Chinese or Malay. I give you another example: Lester he say, "my sergeant very bochap one, but the other platoon ah, the NCO always tekan them. Lagi they all very aksi aksi one." 

But sometimes, not only single word slip in. Whole phrase also slip in. For example, Desmond can ask his friend, "Eh, your new computer ah, nage modem built-in one right? Modem speed ne? Ruguo ni yao upgrade in future, then zenme ban?"


Singlish is OK one, but must also able to speak Standard English lah

Some people in this debate have taken a more subtle argument: it's all right to use Singlish in casual situations and as a badge of identity, so long as one knows when Standard English is required, and uses it in the appropriate situations. 

This hope crashes against the reality that English is a second language to most. The ability to shift registers (i.e. to shift among various modes of language from slang to casual to formal, etc) is usually confined to one's primary language. That is the language one is most fluent in, and with the most exposure to. Hong Kong Chinese can shift registers very well in Cantonese, from the most refined to the most pungent, but if they have English as a second language, they tend to speak English in only a certain way (from broken to fluent) depending on their command of the language. Except for the extremely fluent few, they are not able to modify their English to suit situations. To expect large numbers of Singaporeans to be able to shift registers in English, and include proper Standard English among their available registers, is to presuppose that English be a primary language to the majority. This is not the starting reality.

How come other country can speak Standard English, we cannot?

One might say that just because English is not our primary language, it doesn't mean we can't have Standard English as our second language. Many people in continental Europe speak English as a second language. Very often one finds that they do speak it in a more or less grammatically correct way, albeit more hesitatingly than the British. Just because English is a second language doesn't mean it must be in some incomprehensible local patois like Singlish.

I think there are some factors unique to Singapore.

We do not have an environment of good English around us. Everybody learns by absorption. All around us, we hear Chinese and Chinese grammar (or Malay and Malay grammar if one comes from that community). TCS8, the Chinese-language TV channel, gets a far higher viewership than TCS5, the English-language channel. Most Singaporeans absorb Chinese grammar like mother's milk. Unlike European languages, Chinese grammar is very different from English grammar.

Yet in our education system, we delude ourselves. In the school curriculum, we describe English as the first language and Chinese (or Malay or others) as the second language. We kid ourselves that this is so because mathematics, geography, biology and all other subjects are taught in English. So, I am told, we teach English in a way not much different from schools in English-speaking countries, that is, with the assumption that the children hear English in the environment around them. Of course, the reality is, they don't. At best, they hear lots of Singlish. Even the geography or mathematics teachers, if we listen closely enough, may really be teaching in Singlish, not English. In the canteen, at the bus-stop on the way home, and very often at home, the kids hear Chinese or Malay.

Now, teaching a second language is very different in methodology from teaching a first language. When teaching a second language, one makes no assumption that the students hear the language around them in the environment. There is no "absorption" factor to aid in acquiring the language. The children don't have the benefit of knowing when a phrase "sounds" right or wrong from previous exposure to it. There is assumed to be no previous exposure. The second language teacher takes the students through all the nuts and bolts of the language carefully. The grammatical rules are explained and memorised. Word inflections are recited. Legal and illegal sentence structures are demonstrated and meticulously explained.

An example of a drill:

"The lady played the baby grand piano with a broken leg; she had been in a motorcycle accident."

"The lady played the piano with a broken finger; she was remarkably stoical."

Why is one example acceptable and the other not, when in both cases, the broken limb or digit followed the "piano"? Why was one case "she had been" and the other "she was" -- what difference in meaning did it make?

The failure of teaching, I think, is the chief explanation for the growth of Singlish. We give the children the vocabulary, but we don't drill them in the grammar. Instead, we leave them to use English in a way heavily influenced by their Chinese- and Malay-grammar environment.

Undeniably, a contributing factor is the political stress on our "Asianness" and our "roots". For the last twenty years or so, there has been a strident call to preserve our cultures in the face of insidious (read 'subversive') westernisation. Our economic success, our viability as an independent country will go down the drain unless we preserve our Asian values (read 'language and culture'). Specifically, Chinese Singaporeans must remain Chinese. How can pride in good English be maintained if the language is seen as a kind of Trojan Horse bringing in the enemy, Western liberal values?

So, to get there will cost what?

In summary, we need to face these issues squarely:

If we want large numbers of Singaporeans to be able to speak English to good native-speaker standards, we have to accept there will be a sacrifice of Chinese and Malay. The reality is that most Homo sapiens, other than the top 5 or 10%, cannot be bilingual to the extent of being completely fluent in two languages. The great majority of humans can handle one language well and another in a more functional way. If we expect, say, 30-35% of Singaporeans to speak English like native speakers [2], able to shift registers, able to be creative in the language, truly plugging into the global economy and culture, then these 30-35% are unlikely to be fluent speakers of Chinese or Malay. They will also be, increasingly, non-Chinese culturally. Not necessarily Westernised completely, perhaps more Singapore-acculturated, whatever that may evolve to be. Is this acceptable to those who live and die by the motto, "Chinese should be Chinese"?

If we want the remaining 65-70% of Singaporeans to be able to speak Standard English, as a second language to their primary Chinese or Malay, then at the very least, there has to be a revamp of the way English is taught in schools. As this is a technical problem, solved through technical changes to the school curriculum and teaching methods, it is relatively easy to do, though it will take a generation to bear fruit.

For both objectives, there has to be some abandonment of the political ideology of "Asian Values" and its promotion of Chinese language and culture, otherwise there will always be a conflict of objectives. But remember, the promotion of "Asian Values" serves an authoritarian government well, as (at least in the form it is preached) it makes a virtue of meek acceptance of a strong executive. Is our regime prepared to contemplate this risk to its own future?

© Yawning Bread 




  1. See also the article Bazaar Malay
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  2. 30-35% isn't far-fetched. Recently it was reported that about 40% of Chinese pupils enrolled in Primary 1 classes came from homes where English was the main language. More likely it was not Standard English, but Singlish. Either way, it indicates that for these kids, their "native" language is not Chinese anymore. If it isn't Chinese, then it must surely be better to be English, rather than Singlish.
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