Many tourists who visit Singapore for the first time are quite surprised at how easy it is to move around the city. English is considered the country’s official language and Malay is the national language. From road names to business names, English words can be found everywhere. It is not until you do get to speak to a Singaporean or listen to Singaporeans speak amongst themselves would you start to marvel at the success of the people of Singapore to have dared challenged themselves to compete with the world’s best at everything that needs English as the main medium of communication.
There are several ways how the the man on the street is literally converted to think in English, irregardless of ethnic or racial background. The way the environment has taught man how to develop his own language skills becomes so common that Singaporeans only realise the value when they visit other countries like Arab, Thailand, Indonesia, France or Malaysia, where English is not the official language for state administration. Some of the common ways are highlighted below.
Road or street names.
Palembang (no longer found), Bugis, Geylang, Kandahar, Bedok, Serangoon, Toa Payoh or Pasir Ris. You know these names are unique because they cannot be heard anywhere else around the world except in the country you are visiting. To recognize them as street names, the word “road”,“street’, “central’ or “avenue” in English is used together. Hencforth Bugis Street, Kandahar Street, Bedok Road, Serangoon Road, and Pasir Ris Avenue. To name a few. Many locations still retain the Malay names: “Kampong Glam” – Kampong for Village, “Jalan Sultan” – not Sultan Road. History. “Istana Kampong Glam”.
Residential apartments are marked by numbers and for each apartment block, the term ‘Block” is used. This is not the same as the ‘block’ used in American English. In America, block means a cluster of buildings, usually rectangle area, surrounded by many streets. “He lives in the next block” in America means “He lives in one of the buildings across the street ahead or next to this block.” “He lives in the next block.” in Singapore means “He lives in the block of apartments next to this one.” Be careful though, it does not mean that the block numbers are running numbers. So if you giving directions, be sure to qualify that you are not referring to a running number for “next block” but literally meaning ‘the block beside’. This is not Singlish but English.
Here is what Mr Sedlev thinks about Singlish:
“Regarding Singlish… The difference between Singlish and *Standard* English doesn’t exceed the difference between so-called normal Arabic and various dialects. Grammar of textbook Arabic also has nothing in common with the language spoken in the street. However both are regarded as two forms of one tongue. Given that language is nothing more than a tool of communication, it is absolutely acceptable that Singaporeans tend to accommodate foreign grammar to their mother language. At least, they speak for each other and basically not for foreigners.
But I think that those who love to deride Singlish simply don’t understand that it is a result of imposing a foreign language as a state one at national level. People may have different opinions on Singaporean Government policies, but its way of solving the language problem that has reduced inter-ethnic tensions is a good example for some newly independent states in Eastern Europe.”
Public address (P.A.) system in elevators and trains.
The regular announcements on p.a. systems are repetitive, regular and clear. It is one of the best ways to train our ears to listen and learn how words are pronounced because only voices with good diction will be used in p.a. systems. In the elevators, only English is used: “10th storey”, “Going up.” Or “Going Down”. In trains, there are four different languages used: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil – uniquely Singapore.
Utility and telephone bills.
The monthly bills every person receives in his letter boxes or mailboxes are written in English. If there were any literature attached like brochures, promotion materials or special offers, it is not uncommon to receive them in different other languages like Mandarin, Tamil or Malay. The ordinary folks who do not know how to pay their bills on the internet, with autoteller machines or giro (automatic debit) can still go to the general post office ( I used to do the same when I was a kid.) and the kind cashier takes cash for payment like the good old days. Many old folks do not read, write or speak English but they can read the fine print at the end the numbers they have to pay. Smart!
Here’s a slideshow of some the common food items where English words can be found written on the packagings. (At this point, tears are beginning to well up in my eyes thinking how hard it must have been for my mother who had to learn to read English and still managed to put food on the table for over 80 years. So I created this small slide to show you what she might have learned. There must have been hundreds of food items she has picked up at grocery stores and supermarkets in her lifetime. I have only managed to add 6 to this slide.)
How do you think the old man who has been drinking ‘Kopi’ all his life understands how to say ‘coffee’ in English? From condensed milk to fresh coffee beans, words like coffee, noodles, tea, drink, milk, chocolate and bread have become sight words for grocery shoppers who never had a chance in their lifetime to attend English schools, my mum included. She knew exactly what Liption Tea should look like from their yellow carton boxes. After over 80 years, she knows how to read tea as ‘tea’ not ‘teh’, ‘milk’ not ‘susu’. Clever? I call it practical. Since you need to eat the food, you will want to know about it, and ultimately you will learn the word.
The ubiquitous television.
Life without a radio at home before the 50s was unexciting without the radio. Now we so many channels on high definition television. It is still The News and commercials that are more commonly translated into different languages. Try changing channels for news on the International F1 Singapore Night Race. You will certainly find it reported in your native language at your home country. If ‘race’ is in English, what would that be in Bahasa Indonesia or Spanish. Look it up here. Download this translator for free on your desktop and try it for a few days.
Numbers are spoken everyday when people look for the bus service number they have to board, the right platform they have to go to board the train, the amount of money they have to pay for their groceries at the cashier’s counter, and the price tags on sales items, to name a few. These numbers may speak to them in their native tongue but ultimately, when they hear it from a third party asking for directions from someone else or the taxi driver tells them how much their fare is, they will have start to learn to say it in English. It is interesting to watch how an old taxi driver turns around and says something like, “You got $2.00 or not? Small change. I don’t have small.” I let you work out what that really means in English. If you understand it at all, what do you think that sentence mean?
Indeed, we can find so many ways to improve our language skills; perhaps we just need be to take a second at our environment and surroundings. Do you want to know how Singapore English really sound like? Watch this video.