The Singlish Dilemma
I cringe every time I hear my children speak Singlish. “I cannot lah,” they’ll say or “Why so like that one, ah?” And then, there are these definite shudder-inducing phrases, “mummy, today eat what”, “I already eat” and “can go or not?"
Now, before you get all worked up, this article is not about dissing Singlish or Singaporeans. It is rather about the challenges we as Singaporeans face when it comes to speaking proper English.
Without a doubt Singlish has become very much a part of our identity today, and I am not an advocate of eradicating it; we all know how useful it can be.
The real dilemma is in how to encourage the use of proper English, while not necessarily eroding our Singlish heritage.
At the launch of the “Speak Good English Movement”, Minister of State Mr. Lawrence Wong, said that the objective of this year’s movement is to “enable every Singaporean to speak Standard English – that is grammatically correct, commonly understood around the world and intelligible to English speakers everywhere.”
When I met with Mr Goh Eck Kheng, Chairman of the movement, he was quick to point out that “Singlish has a role in Singapore and is a marker of Singapore’s identity.”
He emphasized that “we are not here to eradicate Singlish but to promote English because it is an advantage that we already have in the international community and it is something we cannot afford to lose.”
So, why do we have so much difficulty speaking in a language that is recognized by the international English community?
Mr. Goh believes it all boils down to the mind-set. “You can speak in simple English even if you are at the hawker or to the taxi uncle. Try saying ‘Uncle may I have some chilli?’ instead of ‘Uncle, chilli.’”
He stresses it is important that those who can speak well must not give in to societal pressure to “dumb down” their language. Instead they should serve as role models so that the standard of English in Singapore is elevated.
He also advocates that one must know how to switch between Singlish and proper English, and learn to effectively use both languages to build relationships under appropriate circumstances.
Georgina Knight-Hassel and her husband, Chris, have been living in Singapore for the last 14 years. Originally from the West of England, the couple settled in the heartlands of Singapore. When their older daughter, Elizabeth, was younger she spoke in Singlish despite her parents being native English speakers.
Her mother explains that this was mainly due to her social activities with the local children in school and at the playgrounds. But during her visits to England, Elizabeth realized that her British cousins and relatives could not understand her ‘colloquial English’. She quickly became aware that if she was to be understood elsewhere, she needed to speak in proper English.
Her younger sister, Lily, on the other hand, was more influenced by Georgina’s presence and spoke in proper English. But when she entered a local primary school, she too began to speak Singlish.
Are they “dumbing down” as Mr. Goh suggests? Definitely not, said their mother. “The girls are merely trying to fit into their environment.” She adds that both girls, now 7 and 11, have learnt how to easily switch between Singlish and British English with ease.
What about our local kids? Can they learn to switch too?
Mr. Goh believes they can. With good role models, he assures us that little children can differentiate languages by listening and absorbing them.
For families who do not have a strong foundation in English, Mr. Goh suggests these options:
- use the mother tongue to converse with the kids
- outsource or find good English speaking role models for their children in enrichment centres or schools
- children will recognize the efforts of their parents or caregivers when they consciously try to speak proper English and will follow suit.
- allow the children to influence and help the adults at home speak better English.
Adel Ang, Channel Sales Manager at TREND Micro, has two kids, 3 and 5, who correct the way she speaks English. She confesses that sometimes she doesn’t “feel at ease” when her kids correct her, but admits it has made her more conscious of the way she speaks English around them.
So, is it a parenting or an education issue?
Some parents like Ms Ng Yi Ling try to impart good English speaking skills to their children but say their efforts are thwarted whenever someone speaks Singlish to them. Others like Ms Mei Loh blame it on impatience. “Children can be impatient to get the message across so they resort to using wrong grammar; parents are impatient too so they often fail to correct them.”
It seems it takes a conscious effort from parents, schools and the public in general to enable our children to speak in proper English AND be able to switch to Singlish when needed.
“Speaking in proper English is speaking in proper sentences,” says Georgina. “While the school teaches them the technical aspects of grammar and vocabulary, as parents, we can supplement this education with guidance and encouragement as well as giving them opportunities to practice speaking in proper English.”
Georgina shares some tips she uses to help her kids speak in proper English.
- Be aware and conscious of the way you speak around your child
- Allow the child to hear conversations in grammatically correct English
- Don’t correct your child each time he/she speaks
- Remind them to speak clearly, not to mumble, and to pronounce the endings of their words
- Practice makes perfect – have conversations with them
- Encourage your child to finish his/her sentence
- Discuss, debate and/or talk about the difference between colloquial and proper English
- Give them the freedom to clarify the pronunciation of words – (eg. American or British pronunciation of tomato or mischievous)
Sure, my kids will continue to speak in Singlish. They are Singaporeans after all. And I know I will continue to reply, once in a while, with my usual sarcastic “Excuse me? What did you just say? I don’t quite understand you.” But I’m pretty confident they are able to switch and speak in formal, proper English when required. And that, I suppose, is fundamentally the most important thing we need to ensure.
There are many more great tips and insights on the official website of Speak Good English movement. As with the learning of any language, it takes time, patience and perseverance to master a language. Share with us how you encourage your kids to speak proper English.
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