Don't use Singlish as the scapegoat!


Hello everyone. So, let's kick off today's blog post is a quote that has been circulating social media in the last 24 hours.

"Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English."- Chang Li Lin, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, New York Times 2016. Please allow me to deal with Ms Chang's quote (which you can read it in full here), which has led people to joke on social media that the only people in Singapore who are qualified to use Singlish are the holders of PhD in English.

Singlish cannot meh?

Do you know the meaning of the word 'oblivious'? The dictionary definition of 'oblivious is, "not aware of or concerned about what is happening around one." Here's a brilliant example of how a typical Singaporean - my mother - is oblivious to when she is speaking Singlish. Pardon me if you have heard me use this example before. She was tutoring my nephew for his PSLE English oral exam and he had asked her a question, "Can I say this during the oral exam?" My mother's answer was an emphatic, "Can-can!" This was when I raised my palms in my face, trying to stifle my "I don't know whether to laugh or cry" reaction. I didn't want to upset my mother by correcting her in front of my nephew. My nephew had actually asked my mother a question in grammatically perfect English - she replied in Singlish. The correct answer should have been "yes" or even "yes you can". But "can can" is in fact a direct translation of 可以/ay-sai (Hokkien). When I hear the words 'can-can', I think of something else totally different (see the dance video below).

Is my mother an uneducated, illiterate Hokkien speaking old woman? No, actually, she is a retired primary school teacher. To be fair to her, most of the time, she is able to speak in grammatically correct English (albeit with a really strong Singaporean accent). But the whole reason why people like her think that can-can is actually English (and not Singlish) is because so many people in Singapore speak like that - it feels natural, comfortable and completely normal: if you said 'can-can' instead of 'yes' in Singapore, you would be understood. My mother had slipped into Singlish without realizing it and that actually happens a lot in Singapore, when Singaporeans are speaking amongst themselves. However, if my nephew were to say 'can-can' instead of 'yes' during his English oral exam, he would be penalized for using non-standard English. But if the woman teaching him English is already using Singlish instead of standard-English during the lessons, what hope does my nephew have of mastering standard English?

Even if my mother did teach my nephew standard English, guess what? He's still going to use Singlish anyway because that is what his classmates speak. So perhaps it is somewhat unfair to blame my mother for her use of Singlish as it was hardly going to make any difference when you look at the big picture. Such is the nature of peer pressure - the people in my nephew's life are not forcing him to speak Singlish, rather, they exert their influence on him in a far more subtle manner. If the vast majority of people around him spoke Singlish rather than standard English, then he is far more likely to use words like 'can', 'got', 'want' etc instead of 'yes' and 'cannot', 'don have' and 'dowan' instead of 'no'. Thus in this context, Singaporeans often feel that there's absolutely nothing wrong with using Singlish if almost everyone around them uses it - it feels familiar, normal and completely acceptable. So I say, good luck to the teachers (such as my buddy, Mr Angmohdan) trying to stop their students from using Singlish in the classroom.

However, the one factor that is going to stop Singaporeans from using Singlish is that of class identity. The fact is your class status is most likely to determine whether or not you will speak Singlish or not. The Singaporeans who are very highly educated and affluent are more likely to have a more global view of the world: they will consume media (TV programmes, movies, Youtube videos, podcasts, music etc) from all over the world and are more likely to have friends from outside Singapore. Thus they would be consuming media in standard English (as opposed to Singlish) and using standard English to communicate with their international friends, as non-Singaporeans are really going to struggle to comprehend Singlish. Those who are less highly educated and less affluent are far less likely to take interest in media from abroad, they travel less and are far less likely to have friends who reside halfway around the world. Thus they are far less exposed to other forms of English apart from Singlish (or at least English with a Singaporean accent) and don't feel the need to modify or adapt their English for non-Singaporeans.

My regular readers will know that I am a gymnast - I was a former national champion in Singapore and still train today. Back in the day, I remember how the Singapore American school had a very good gymnastics programme and I got to know many of the gymnasts there. I even became good friends with some of them as we trained together sometimes back in the early to mid 1990s. When I was with them, I stuck out like a sore thumb as the only one with a Singaporean accent and I remember how awkward I felt when I used a Singlish phrase with them, "your hands cannot liddat one lah" (I was talking about how you gripped the bar for a certain skill) - oh dear. Awkward blank stares all around. One girl said, "I'm sorry I don't speak Chinese?" I quickly corrected myself and said, "you can't grip the bar like that." Then suddenly, they smiled - they understood me the second time around. As I liked my American friends, I picked up an American accent from them quickly because I wanted to fit in, being accepted by my American friends meant more to me back then than fitting in with my Singlish speaking friends. Besides, I knew I could code-switch if necessary.

But that was back in the 1990s, in this day and age, anyone with a fast internet connection (and that means practically everyone in Singapore) can make friends with Americans over the internet and consume vast quantities of American media content. Thanks to the power of various apps like Facetime, Skype, live streaming on Youtube and Facebook, talking to someone is now free (as long as you have a good Wifi connection). Gosh, I remember when making long distance phone calls in the early 1990s used to be so complicated and expensive - we even had to talk to an operator. Good grief. You can see why it was so unusual for someone like me to have loads of American friends in Singapore back in the 1990s. However, all it takes is aspiration - that is all the motivation you need to choose whom you want to hang out with and identify as your friends: in this day and age, young people are just as likely to use Google Hangouts to speak to others whom they have a lot in common with - for many young people, this kind of virtual interaction doesn't feel any less real or rewarding than actually seeing someone in person at the local Starbucks for a face to face chat. Such is the digital generation for you - it is a different world.

And really, changing the way you speak English isn't that hard - code-switching really isn't that impossible at the end of the day. After all, lest you forget, you are supposed to use standard English in school (and not Singlish). Singlish only evolved when the British colonized Singapore and the locals started trying to learn English as a second or foreign language - this led to many mistakes being made on a grand scale to the point where a local patois/creole had developed. My mother grew up speaking Hokkien as a first language, that was why when she was introduced to English as a student at school, she learnt it as a second language. That explains why she often lapses into Singlish, that happens when her ideas are formulated in her head in Hokkien and she doesn't translate them into standard English before expressing them. That does conveniently explain why the older generation speaks Singlish - but what about the younger generation then? So why do Singaporeans like my nephew still struggle with the English language?

Quite frankly, I am not sure. My nephew's English isn't good - I had just found out that he had performed really quite badly in English during his mid-year exams, it was his worst subject. Can we blame this on the fact that he speaks Singlish - or is it the way he is taught English at school that is responsible for his poor grasp of the English language? I suspect that it is probably the latter - when I was in Singapore last year, I was aghast at how he prepared for his English oral exam by writing out his answers. I told him, "it's an oral exam, you don't have to write anything down". He didn't have a logical explanation as to why he insisted on writing down his answers, except that he was used to learning by copying his notes. It is a rather Chinese way of learning - I still have nightmares about how I had to memorize chunks of Chinese passages for the 墨写 tests. For those of you not familiar with the fucking awful Chinese ritual of 墨写, students were made to memorize bloody long chunks of Chinese texts and had to regurgitate them by copying it out, word for word. And ladies and gentlemen, that's why I fucking hated studying Chinese at school and that's also why French is now my second language, not Chinese, because there was no 墨写 when I studied French.

But I digress. I wasn't taught Chinese or English well as a student in Singapore, but thankfully I read a lot. That was something my older sisters had taught me - there was always a lot of great reading material in the house (novels and magazines mostly) and I learnt English from the books and the American TV programmes I watched. My nephew is far more interested in computer games than TV programmes, so he would rather sit down on his iPad and play games than to watch a movie or TV programme. Furthermore, he is autistic, has Asperger's syndrome and has signs of ADHD, so trying to get him to read is not easy. He'll read if he his teacher tells him to do it for homework, but reading for pleasure the way I did is simply something he would never do. I've not actually seen how he is taught English in school, but the fact that he chooses to write out his answers when preparing for his oral exams makes me shake my head in despair. I told him very bluntly, "there's no point in you writing out any of this - you don't know what questions the teachers are going to ask you during the oral exams. And in any case, what you've written down is not even all that interesting and is full of mistakes. I'm not being funny here. Your grammar, your spelling... oh where do I even begin?"

At least when I was made to memorize chunks of Chinese passages for the 墨写 tests, they were the words of some famous Chinese writer or poet, so at the very least, the Chinese I was made to memorize were very well written passages. My nephew was writing down and memorizing his own words, riddled with so many errors, written in such painfully bad English. Oh dear. If only he was memorizing passages from Harry Potter, then at least it would be J K Rowling's English he would be learning. All I can conclude is that he is a product of the Singaporean education system, where rote learning has become such a mainstay of primary education that children have lost any ability to be spontaneous and think on the spot. I don't blame my nephew for trying to prepare for an exam like that the wrong way - he's just a child at the end of the day. When things go that badly wrong with a child like that, you blame the teachers. You blame the education system. I can only shake my head in despair as my nephew is the victim in all this and Singaporeans are so oblivious as to how broken their education system is. Trying to blame Singlish for the inability to speak standard English is a red herring - the system itself fundamentally needs to change if children are to learn how to use English properly and confidently. Stop using Singlish as the scapegoat here.

Now ironically, I know who this Gwee character (the man with the PhD that Ms Chang referred to) is and he's the one responsible for making my blog famous in the first place. I once had a disagreement with him on Facebook and he cut & pasted a link to my blog to 'name and shame' me. At that stage, I was getting like 30 hits a month if I was lucky, but people started reading and sharing what I wrote - including a certain Mr Brown in Singapore. Before you knew it, my blog had gone totally viral and 8.275 million pageviews later, the rest is history. So over to you, what do you think the problem is then? Let me know what you think about this issue, do leave a comment below. Many thanks for reading.

This article was first published over at the Limpeh Foreign Talent blog on 27 May 2016. It is reproduced with permission.


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