Friday, February 15, 2008

Of language and accents.

Singaporeans love to think that they are 'effectively bilingual'. The two languages include English and our mother tongue (Malay, Mandarin or Tamil). Most of us are fluent in at least one other dialect as well. Because of our geographical location and cultural mix, the Singaporean English has been peppered with various words found in Malay and other Chinese dialects, thus the birth of Singlish.

I recall that there was a fierce debate as to whether we should embrace Singlish. In fact, there was a sizable group who actually think that Singlish should be promoted and Singaporeans should take pride in their unique language. These people believe that Singaporeans are adaptable enough to switch to 'proper' English when conversing with non-Singaporeans. The pride in Singlish was so strong that there was an uproar when 'Phua Chu Kang' was corrected for speaking Singlish. His trademark catch phrase "Don't pray pray" ("Don't play play"), which he used to warn others "not to play the fool”, was very much toned down after government intervention.

I realised that implication of bad language usage only after I arrived in London. Now, it's ok if Singapore is a huge country of 1 billion in population. I mean, we can speak whatever language that we want and demand others to learn our language. But as an island state of merely 4 million (a quarter of which aren't even citizens), there's no real bargaining power.

I was really surprised that Londoners can understand Indian and east European accented English much better than Singaporean's. Coupled with the differences in slang, I am almost speaking a different language altogether. The British are a polite lot. They won't tell me that straight in the face. But I can see their surprise when I mentioned that my first language is English.

What are your views? Should local accents be promoted or shunned?

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Thomas said...

For me, an American living in Japan, Singlish, or a Singaporean speaking English, is very difficult for me to understand. Indian English is difficult for me to understand as well. I think they are too fast.

I can understand Japanese-English much better than I can understand Chinese, or Korean-English. I think it is just because I am used to it, but I also think it is because I can speak Japanese so I kind of know the sentence structure and thought pattern and can predict what they want to say.

ArticleSpecialist said...

Hi, I have been advertising on your site for quite some time. And honestly this is the first time I read your post entirely, because it is related to my talking experience with Singaporeans.

I can understand Singlish very well, although it sounds a bit different to "normal" English. I think, it is because I have met so many Singaporeans.

Every country or region has their own English dialect. If you've ever heard Indonesian speak English, many of them actually speak Javanese English - English with Java accent.

bendzG said...

I've been to Singapore once and heard people talking in Singlish and, boy, do I think they were stupid.

We Filipinos have what we call Taglish but we are not planning on embracing it as a national language even if it sounds better than Singlish. We also have what we call the Carabao English which people here even Celebrities like former Miss International, Melanie Marquez , become famous for. This is much similar to your Singlish and like Singlish, it should be something to be ashamed of.

I remember the Singaporean Bellhop answered me with " Yes sir, can, can." after asking him if it is possible to assist me in getting my other bags as I checked out.

By the way, I like to share Melanie Marquez' quotable quote about his son taking a students loan: "The British School system is amazing, they can loan the kid then pay it after he graduationed."

Entrepeneur said...

Article Specialist & Bendz- Singlish is not quite the same as English with an accent nor Taglish where the words spoken are malapropisms.

Singlish is very much English spoken with the Chinese language pattern, much of its "funniness" coming from direct translations of words.

For example, a chinese person would say the WIND IS VERY BIG, if you take the literal translation of the phrase. This is what Singlish is and why it sounds like that.

I don't think its anything to be ashamed of and find it rather endearing, a sort of national language that only the locals understand.

The problem I think is that many of the people who speak "proper Singlish" can't speak proper English for nuts! Thus the miscommunication.

But if you look at the younger generations, they all speak English, albeit with the Singapore cadence and accent, and that's fine.

Who can understand the Scottish?

themuxicbox said...

@ Bendzg
Although I think that Singlish is a very crude way to speak but I don't think anyone has got the right to say it is stupid or something to be ashamed of. Japanese language or American English are also filled with slangs but you can't just say a country's language is stupid just because you don't like it. Singlish is not a national language and I hope it will never be one. But its part of our cultural and its not to be denied. What I can do is course try not to use it and educate my kids not to use it. But I won't go around telling people its stupid to use it.

Taitai said...

Aiyah, so few things to be proud of as Singaporean, this one must love alredi.

Bendz- people tell you "can, can" why you should get upset? Is when they say "cannot, cannot" that you should call them stupid.

Btw, your paragraph here, got a lot of grammatical errors. Must work on your English, hokay?

"We also have what we call the Carabao English which people here even Celebrities like former Miss International, Melanie Marquez , become famous for. This is much similar to your Singlish and like Singlish, it should be something to be ashamed of."

You see proper English, cannot end with "for" or "of". That's called a "dangling modifier". And here you use two sentences that end with these danglers. Tst tst.

Oso, cannot use, "which people". You should use the "that". Why? This is a grammar rule, not I make up one. Another thing, no need to use "the" before Carabao English. Other problems, here I show you how proper English should write this way:

"We also have what we call Carabao English that people like former Miss International Melanie Marquez has made famous. It is very similar to Singlish and like Singlish, should be something Singaporeans should be ashamed to use."

:D Happy Chinese New Year!

Colin Campbell said...

Coming from Scotland with our own particular version of English and having spent many years in English speaking countries including Singapore, The Philippines, America and now Australia, I have to say that it is a huge part of the cultural identity.

So no more cultural angst lah! It is just part of you. Enjoy! Unless you want to be pretentious lah!