Being the boliao* and rather kaypoh** Singaporean that I am, I feel the need to throw in my two cents worth in response to all the blog posts and forum editorials that have been popping up non stop ever since the Oxford English Dictionary recognised an additional 19 Singlish words in their dictionary. What’s with all the big hurrah and debate about it? Does this make Singlish more recognised in the international language arena, perhaps, to the horror of the government and the organisers behind the Speak Good English campaign? I think many authors before me have argued extensively on the Singlish issue, and many authors will continue engaging in that discourse. So let’s talk about something else.
The Singapore government had tried to stamp out Singlish (and Chinese dialects, but that is another story) over the years, particularly with the Speak Good English campaign in 2000. But good colloquial Singlish has prevailed over the years, and government leaders seem to be accepting it, even tapping on it to appeal to the masses at times (e.g.: political campaigning). To be fair, I think what they are targeting more on is the fact that we speak bad English, not so much on the Singlish proponent. I think there is a difference between bad English (which frankly, we are remarkably good at speaking), and Singlish, even though the two are closely intertwined. But why do we speak bad English in the first place? Or more specifically, why are our language skills so poor at times? Personally, I think that that stems from a flaw in our bilingualism policy, and the socio-economic structure of families in Singapore. As an ethnic Chinese, I feel that knowing and learning dialects can aid in the learning of Mandarin. Look at Hong Kong for instance. Not only are the people proficient in Cantonese, they are able to speak proficient Mandarin and standard English as well. And then we have Singapore, where the discouragement of dialects and the propagation of two main languages had pretty much led us to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none” when it comes to languages. Too often I hear people using a mishmash of poor Mandarin and standard, or even bad, English together. Is this Singlish? Well… Not really. Is this a reflection of poor language skills? Quite definitely so. And more often than not, the environment we are in influences how we pick up languages, and the proficiency of our mastery. If you come from an environment that speaks poor language, something that seems more prevalent in the neighbourhoods, chances are that you would mix with people with similar proficiency levels, and perpetuate bad language skills.
Here’s my real life example with how one’s environment impacts our language proficiency. When I was in Primary and Secondary school, my environment was predominantly English speaking. Even though my mother spoke to me in Mandarin at home, I developed the habit to respond back in English (horrible, I know) because that was what I was used to speaking with my peers in school. I was “lucky” in the sense that everyone in my social circle communicated in perfect English, with, of course, the occasional lapses into colloquial Singlish. But it was never a broken combination of multiple languages mashed together, or bad English. I cannot help but feel that my trade off in commandeering a good mastery of the English language came at the cost of my mother tongue. Sure, I read Higher Chinese back in those days. But so what? Perhaps I did score the highest out of all my friends who slogged through it with me back in those days in secondary school. SO WHAT? Throw me into China, or Taiwan, or any Mandarin speaking country right now, and I’d probably be stammering like a lost duck in English scattered Mandarin. I would probably speak better Hokkien than Mandarin at the drop of the hat, really. Higher Chinese was just harder exam wise. It did not make me a better speaker than a normal Chinese student, no. It did not make me more appreciative of my Chinese roots and culture. It just made me go through two exams, and cram and regurgitate some cheem*** phrases my tutor taught me to memorise. The question now is, how well did the bilingual policy work out? In theory, I guess it did work out pretty well. I can speak (albeit with a weird accent), read (blanking out a word here and there) and write Mandarin (even if I do need to type the hanyu pinyin**** out for some words on my phone in order to write them). But really, how well does it fare out for me? Yes, it can potentially open a door of possibilities for me for business and for leisure, but I don’t feel more culturally Chinese just because I know Mandarin. I’m sure my mother would yell the shebangs out of me for that statement should she ever see this but that is the truth. And the truth is that many of us who are offered Higher Mother Tongue back in our school days choose to trudge through it because it was a holy grail: we get to minus two points off our raw score for ‘O’ levels, AND we don’t have to sit through another mother tongue lesson ever again should we have chosen the Junior College (JC) route. And you have got to admit, those were pretty good incentives, and it only required a minimum passing C6 grade. That speaks volume, does it not?
Now, speaking of JC, I remember being slammed with a ginormous cultural shock entering a truly neighbourhood school for the first time. Because I was in an Arts class with many foreign students, English was still our main channel of communications. But everywhere else I ventured, all I heard was a mishmash of English with a multitude of other languages as the mean of communication, which I have never heard before prior. And it truly boggled my mind, till this day, how our perceptions and stereotypes about the language skills in the neighbourhoods are perpetuated and turns out to be true. Funnily enough, I can never imagine speaking for long with some of my JC friends in anything other than bad English tossed with a generous smattering of Singlish and a dash of dialect, the same way I can never imagine communicating with my secondary school friends in anything except perfect English.
If you have made it this far through all these verbiage, I thank you, and applaud you for that. But what does this make for us, moving forward? I know I have not written a lot about the issue of dialects, but I really do hope greater emphasis would be placed on its importance and nurturing it. Dialect has been lost to many, and I am immensely thankful that my parents have taught me my native Hokkien dialect, even though I’m unable to practice it much or learn more, since all the Taiwanese serial dramas they air on Channel 8 are extensively dubbed into ear grating Mandarin. I am proud still though, however, that I can order my food at the hawker centres or in school canteens in dialect, and talk to my relatives using dialect too. For all my outwardly jiak kantang-ness*****, I am very much in tune with my own dialect. Perhaps then, dialects could be promoted as our new cultural identifier. Perhaps in time, dialects would be cool and recognised again.
I also think that it is more important for policymakers to realise how deeply rooted bad English and Singlish are in our colloquial language and culture. And instead of solely encouraging people to speak a single language well, I think perhaps we can look into teaching and encouraging people to code switch even better. Writing this article in standard English was a choice, just like how my ability to code switch allows me to make the conscious choice to speak in bad English, or Singlish, or standard English with anyone and everyone I meet and interact with. I fervently believe everyone can differentiate the different forms better if we work at targeting the root of the problem, instead of trying to exterminate the surface consequences of existing policy flaws with new policies and campaigns.
Cliched as it might be, while English is the language that bonds our people together, and bridges us to the rest of the world, it is our colloquial language that creates shared memories, love and ties amongst us all. The world may share the English language, but only 5.4 million of us on this tiny red dot we call home share the Singlish lexicon, its beauty and flaws.
And that, is pretty dang awesome.
* A Hokkien phrase translated from 无聊 (wú liao) in Mandarin, which means that you have nothing better to do.
** Hokkien phrase that means busybody
*** Meaning profound
**** The romanisation of Mandarin characters
***** Hokkien phrase that is literally translated as “eating potatoes”, a figure of speech that describes a Westernised Chinese.