Singapore English has a distinctly different flavour. For a long time, it has been called ‘Singlish’, and it is so distinct that the Oxford English Dictionary legitimises 19 Singlish terms by adding them to its lexicon. Before I get into the list, let’s just imagine me travelling to a foreign country where nobody could understand my language. How do you think I should try to communicate with the locals? Most travelers will learn the words that help them to get around or do things, such as eating, paying for meals, or commuting, quickly. And as you learn to pick a new language, your mind will start thinking of yourself as a child who tries to utter a few words to your parents.
I grew up speaking English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia and Chinese. I am lucky to have such a rare opportunity to immerse myself in different cultures and traditions, and soak in the languages, all of which happened when I was just a CHILD.
Growing up as a Singaporean means we will speak and hear Singlish all the time. It is pointless to ridicule natives for not understanding English properly. After all, what are schools for if everyone can speak English fluently?
How Can You Tell If Someone Is Speaking Singlish Or Pidgin English
We can easily recognize the difference between someone who uses Singaporean English and substandard English as soon as you hear it. Despite this, Singlish itself evolved from the combination of the languages developed by local and migrant Singaporeans who decided to reside in this country decades ago. These native speakers can only converse in Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay or Tamil. For instance, my late father speaks Javanese and my late mother could only write in Bahasa Jawi. They both would speak only Malay to us.
Like it or not, regardless of your education background, one can never enjoy the Singapore lifestyle by trying to communicate in proper English all the time. The differences can range from subtle differences in grammar, like “Why cannot you join us one?” to the bizarre “Why ah, why don’t you join us one?” People are apt to label one another as communicating badly on the street, “That is so Singlish.” But the same sentence may not be labeled as such if you were in Malaysia or Indonesia.
So we can agree that whether it is Singlish or substandard English, as long as business gets done and life moves on, who is to say language is wrongly applied?
My Personal Experience As A Singaporean
I have many personal encounters where speaking Singlish gets things done faster and more efficiently.
We sent our handheld vacuum cleaner to the shop for repair. Here is how the service note is written:
*ON/OFF sometime cannot “ON”
The words are just enough to communicate our need for a repairman. In a way, you can compare it to pidgin English. However, it’s so common that everyone accepts that if you can get things done by speaking Singlish, then why bother learning English? What needs to be serviced is described by these keywords. The switch needs to be serviced. Our vacuum cleaner has been repaired. The service was good. We had to pay nothing for the repair since it was still covered under warranty. The manner of the Chinese businessmen just made me want to speak Mandarin to them. It does little to change the positive impression we already had of their service. This is from the moment I called requesting information about how to repair the product to when we collected it at Sim Lim Square. During our dealings, we spoke English, Mandarin, and Singlish.
It is interesting to note that life has continued successfully despite the challenges of learning and using proper English. Critics of Singlish and unintelligible English must admit that if business thrives on language, let the people decide what language they wish to use to communicate.
In many ways, our children grow up so accustomed to this brand of English, they hardly notice any difference between Singlish and the so-called proper English. That is not until they see their English test results.
A glass of ‘teh tarik’ is not ‘white tea’, a cup of coffee without milk is not ‘black coffee’, but simply ‘coffee without milk’. Slippers don’t come in pairs but they are just ‘slippers’ because there are two of them, i.e. plural. Grammar rules regarding names of things, places, and times, or nouns as they are called in English can be applied at school. But when the kids come home from school, they can freely speak their native language with their parents.
“A bit of English is better than none at all”, that’s the rule. As a matter of fact, if you try to sound intelligent, you are more likely to be treated as if you can afford to pay a higher price for services. Try speaking fluent English at the market with the fishmonger, vegetable seller or butcher. You WILL feel so out of place and so uneducated next to the housewife pushing a shopping trolley. The reason for this is because she slips in beside you and starts haggling in Singlish, pigeon English or simple Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay or even Tamil. She successfully completes her purchase and walks away with a glint of smile on her face. This leaves you standing there wondering what she did to drive home with such a terrific bargain. I have learnt from my mum who speaks no English. The isles are clearly marked ‘meat’, ‘poultry’, ‘fish’ and ‘vegetables’. But does she even care or read any of that?! She briskly walks up to the vegetable seller, orders what she wants in Malay and walks away. Sometimes, she grunts under her breath after haggling for a better bargain for a kilogramme of red onions or potatoes. “Mahal nah! Sepuluh sen pun susah nak kasi.” … “So expensive! It’s incredibly difficult to get a discount of 10 cents.”
You can probably guess by now that I have a somewhat fickle relationship with the English language. I like that when I talk in Singlish or speak English with a Singaporean accent, I feel right at home. But when I teach, I feel imperfect. And in reality, speaking proper English in public in this country actually takes guts. Whether I wear a school uniform or dress nicely, nobody is impressed by my English. My husband has even referred to my English as Raffles English.
In Singapore, people are able to make ends meet each day, so it makes intuitive sense to believe speaking Singlish is better than speaking nothing. In fact, I think it is the smartest way to live. My mum who passed away on December 29 2019 was 90 years old and she had never spoken English. Did she have a fulfilling life? Most certainly yes. Did she try to raise her three intelligent children to speak Raffles English? She did not, not even for a day or a moment. Neither did my father. They had left the teaching to the schools, and the learning to the children. After all, you cannot change what you cannot control. Growing up speaking English with a Singaporean accent has actually made me live smart, not hard.
This is me demonstrating how Singlish and English sound like. Remember to subscribe, comment and share the YouTube channel.