Disclaimer: This article is in no way generalizing the entire population of Singapore and is not taking any aggressive stance albeit it might seem so as you read it. It highlights the plight of a sector who is struggling with English and Singlish may have a role to play as per the author’s analysis. It’s open to the readers reasoning and debate.
I lucidly remember this rule set by my father for the kids in the house during our childhood years. We were required to converse in English from 9am until 6pm every day. His motive behind this rule was to ensure that we had a solid foundation of the English language. He knew the importance of this widely used language in academia and the professional world and the impact it could have in shaping one’s future. One of the dominating factors in making India diverse is its languages. We speak over a 100 different languages. Let us not even get started with the dialects and variations in those dialects across the regions. I am able to converse in 4 different languages namely Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English. Hindi is widely spoken across the country while Marathi is spoken in a western state of India. They share majority of the alphabet but are distinct when you hear them. Gujarati is different altogether in comparison to Hindi and Marathi. When people raise their brows after meeting multilinguists like myself, I hesitantly tell them that I manage. Yes! “Manage.” Am I fluent in these languages? I can say yes for English alone owing to an academic background in it coupled with the fact I have been using it the most, personally and professionally. There are numerous factors that shape your command over a language and the foundation of a language is built during your formative years. Your accent, how you construct sentences, adopt the right tenses, the way you implement correct grammar, your pronunciations are all determined by your home environment, academic background, your interactions with people, the books you read, the movies you watch, the songs you listen to and the conscious effort that you make to dive deeper into the language while avoiding repetition of mistakes. Knowing the importance of English and its global reach in today’s times, I do go that extra mile to hone my speaking, writing and reading skills for English alone. Do my regional languages have an impact on my English learning process? Yes they do. At times, I subconsciously, literally translate from my Indian languages, the sentences that I speak and write in English and it gets messed up and mostly funny. Now if an absolute foreign language can have the power to disrupt your hold on English, you can imagine the chaos caused by a widely adopted alteration of English with its own set of slangs. Welcome to the world of Singlish in Singapore. There has been an ongoing debate on whether Singlish impacts the learning process of Standard English in Singapore. The government has been promoting the use of correct English. It launched the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to ensure that Singaporeans make an effort to speak grammatically correct English. The critics on the other hand are hesitant to compromise Singapore’s cultural identity by going against Singlish and are of the opinion that Singaporeans are doing just fine by switching between Singlish (which is used in informal settings) and English (used in work, academic settings).
Can the pace of development be compromised in the name of culture and identity? For instance, let us take the legal world into consideration which heavily depends on the play of words. The way you draft clauses and raise claims has a huge impact on the final outcome involving the respective parties. We cannot be dropping words, misusing the tenses or compressing elaborate, correct sentences here. One might argue that Singlish is not used in the Singaporean world of law and the so-called chameleons can very well switch when required to. They “manage”? Let us now consider a fresh graduate writing a cover letter for his first job or an aspiring student wishing to study in an American university. There are recruiters/admission panels who have turned down offers/acceptances based on a poor hold of the English language. What you phrase is an outcome of what you know, how you think, analyse, frame and speak and all these are moulded by the environment you are exposed to. Does Singlish somewhere play a role in hampering your English learning journey? Think about it. Why would the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew himself debate on such an issue? There is no right or wrong here. Singlish is here to stay and is an integral part of the red dot. It saves time, breath and is efficient to get the point across the table. Is the average Singaporean struggling with his English because his parents speak in Singlish and so do his teachers at school? Is Singlish really playing a role of a cultural identity or is it being mocked at? Is the language cherished through literature, books and fine arts? These are a few questions that need to be raised and discussed. Singaporeans need to identify its importance and relevance in today’s times and steps need to be taken to ensure Singlish is retained but not exaggerated.
The human brain is wired to learn and master a new skill through repetition. You need to work further on what you have learnt before and build on it. If I learn a new idiom or a figure of speech at school today, and switch to pidgin English after school without consciously making an effort to implement my learning, I shall never be able to make quicker progress with the language and thereby stagnate. If I am learning to play the guitar, I need to continue playing it and not switch to a cello the next day with a defence stating that both are string instruments.
When my parents visited Singapore during my graduation last year, they keenly observed the way I was communicating with the locals… the cab drivers, hawker centre vendors. I was taken aback when they confessed that they found it hard to understand the way the locals communicated and were surprised to see that I managed to converse with them using concise sentences and some slangs. Singlish is infectious. You will adopt it after staying in Singapore for a longer period of time. It brings the people here together somehow. It enhances the camaraderie. You love it… You hate it but you can’t avoid it. However, you can definitely and consciously control its use.
If culture needs to be preserved and promoted, let us foster the individual languages of Mandarin, Tamil, Malay and not a hybrid of all which cannot be used in the working world in Singapore and most importantly across the globe in this digital, global interconnected era. Even if the chameleons can switch between Standard English and Singlish, we cannot defend Singlish because of a sector that can efficiently make this switch or even the fact that some words have been included in the Oxford English Dictionary this year. We need to analyse the struggle faced by the Singaporean citizen and the barriers which hinder his learning process and eventually his growth. And the two most important places where a change is indispensable are: at home and in school.
I call this generation a transition generation, especially those born in the late 80s and early 90s, the two decades that experienced an information and telecommunications revolution with smart phones, touch screens, modern computers and the internet boom. Majority of us are well-travelled, better educated and thus have a greater global exposure in contrast to our parents’ generation. We have the power of being well-connected and are at the disposal of an unlimited flow of information. This generation of Singaporeans is thus aware of the edge English speakers have over the others and thus can ensure that it is spoken at dinner tables. This generation needs to transit from the pidgin English to the correct form of standard English without the fear of losing Singlish. The teachers need to explicitly state the differences between Singlish and English in schools and the right circumstances under which each may be appropriately used while laying enough stress on the correct grammar. And this explanation needs to be done using correct, well-drafted sentences. We cannot blame a grammatical error in English on Singlish. We cannot valorise Singlish in the name of cultural ethos and compromise the progress of generations to come owing to language barriers. We need to find a balance that retains correct Singlish phrases/slangs to foster cultural identity while at the same time put in much more effort in ensuring that grammatically correct English which is widely understood, is spoken across the island.