Monday, October 13, 2008

We are like that one lah!


Did you see this article in yesterday’s Sunday Times?

In a regular column, The Ex-pat Files, Strait Times copy writer Andrew Raven wrote about his encounter with Singlish - Singapore’s unique brand of street English. He narrated his initial surprise and frustrations when trying to communicate with the man in the street; citing examples of a taxi-driver and a property agent.

I must confess that my initial reaction on reading his article was one of indignation. After reading a few sentences, I stopped. My conclusion was that Mr Raven was yet another proud ‘Ang Moh’ who wanted to poke fun of our English. I have seen this before on TV as well as on a few videos put up by students of the International School on YouTube. But after re-reading his article today, I am somewhat appeased because at the end of his article, he defended the use of Singlish thus:

“In the last two months I’ve developed an appreciation for Singlish, but not only because of its simplicity and versatility. It is one of the few things that gives Singapore, which can be quite antiseptic, character…….. Singlish, in its most basic form, has long been a bugbear of government officials, who are waging a campaign urging heartlanders to embrace the King’s English. But here’s hoping that doesn’t take root. What a shame it would be if, one day, everyone sounded like Londoners. Singapore is a unique country with a long history and a mix of cultures. It should have a dialect that reflects that.”

Actually, I think most of us Singaporeans do not have any problem with people poking fun of our English. After all, even our former Prime Minister did that during his National Day Rally speech, and our local comedians do it all the time. But what I find a bit offensive is the attitude of many Westerners who expect Singaporeans to speak ‘proper English’ like them.

1) In the first place, why should a ‘cosmopolitan’ like Andrew Raven be surprised and frustrated at the way we speak? He should know that in every society where English is spoken, there exists a pidgin version. When I visited Seychelles some years ago for a training assignment, I was told by the locals that French visitors were absolutely aghast with the local variety of French (Creole) spoken by the Seychellois. I have not been to the UK, but I suspect that even there, the locals from different part of the country have their own variety of pidgin English which might be unintelligible to visitors. Perhaps my friends John Harper or Brian Mitchell can comment.

2) If foreigners who come to work and live in our country would take the trouble to learn a bit about our culture and languages, they would find it much easier to understand why we speak the way we do. Let me give you an example,

Once I saw news clip on TV where a Caucasian derided the way Singaporeans spoke. I think he was an American. He was at a meeting with some Singaporeans; and “almost fell off his chair” when one Singaporean rose to leave and said; “I have to make a move first.” In the U.S. it seems, when somebody wants to make a move, he is either going to draw his gun or throw a punch.

If this gentleman had a basic understanding of the Chinese language, he would know that it is common courtesy when taking leave from a group to say; “ 我先走一步“, which literally means, “I have to take the first step.”

3) Actually, if we want to be picky like him, we too can find many incidences of ludicrous use of the English language by Americans. Take for example the words ‘hot’ and ‘cool’. I have heard both adjectives being used in the same sentence to describe a handphone! And just the other day, I overheard an interesting exchange at a neighbourhood clinic.

An American lady approached the receptionist just after consulting the doctor and asked; “What is the damage?” You can imagine how unintelligible that would be if the receptionist had not been exposed to Hollywood TV shows and movies.

I think one can think of lots of strange expressions and words introduced by Westerners, especially Americans that sound even weirder than our Singlish. The only reason they are still comprehensible is because of the widespread influence of Hollywood and pop culture.

In conclusion, I have this bit of advice for expatriates. If you want to come to work and live in Singapore, you should adapt to our ways and not expect us to adapt to yours; even if you will begin to sound a bit silly to your own countrymen before too long. I remember an interesting anecdote my former colleague from Hong Kong shared with me. Within six months of living in Singapore, he found himself unintentionally introducing local words like ‘pasar’ into his Cantonese which completely baffled his relatives in Hong Kong.

28 comments:

peter said...

I am not sure who is right or who is wrong. What I like to say, I do enjoy the different ways how the English language can be spoken and pronounced. One's ability to manage the differences makes it a joy.

In Hong Kong, English sounds like a "sing-song" because the Cantonese intonation is used. Same with India.

In the Philippines it sounds a bit more vulgar when FACTORY sounds more like FXXKTORY or the facs machine sounds more like the FXXK. Many years ago my son asked me how come our Filipina maid always speak vulgar words? I was a bit puzzled but soon broke into laughter. I believe it is the Spanish version of English. Was this not the way we were were taught English in school - remember the vowels of a, e, i, o and u? In Australia, I start English with "Bloody day" when the Aussies cannot bat against the English but does not make me rude right?.

Singapore English is based on "Think Mandarin first and speak English" and as you know, Mandarin does away with proper tenses, nouns and adjectives.

In Scotland, I probably have a big problem. So when it comes to Sir Alex Ferguson speaking English, I really "catch no ball".

Frankly speaking I always try to go local when I speak English in other countries because it's fun and colourful. "Jolly good I say..."

Lam Chun See said...

You are right. And that's why the show Mind Your Language was so popular. Likewise the Indian guy in MediaCorp's latest sitcom Calefare. Do you remember Hamid Bond? He was so funny. Too bad he passed away so early.

peter said...

O by the way has anybody heard a Mainlander Chinese speak English in Singapore? I heard some China nurses in a hospital just do that. You know what, I thought they were rude and wanting to pick a fight especially they are loud people until I did a rough translation and found they "Think Mandarin in the head, Speak English in the mouth". Last month I heard Mainlander Yao Ming speak English - I thot he was ABC, American Born Chinese.

One Sunday I went to one of those independent Christian evangelistic churches. I thot I was in the Bay Area of San Francisco because I heard slang and twang like "Brother, Peace b with you, Awesome.......It's great, Fantastic, Absolutely.........". Then I checked again, O my our local people do that. Are we great imitators or there is a segment in every society that behaves this way?

Lam Chun See said...

Peter. Do you realise that your use of "Frankly speaking" in your first comment is typical Singlish? It's direct translation from the Chinese "老实说“ (Cantonese - lou sat kong). Correct English should be "Frankly" or "To be frank". Hope someone can confirm if I am right.

peter said...

I enjoy "The Noose" on our local English TV channel where one of the newscasters speak "BBC English". Then one of the roving reporter at the National Stadium speak "One kind of English".

I think the important thing is not to feel and or make one type of English sound more superior than others. Likewise don't make Mandarin sound as if it can replace English or there is no place for Pernakan English- that's very cocky. Otherwise we are a nation that still lives with a colonial hang-over.

peter said...

Chun See
U right, I think Cantonese in my head when I speaky English u know. O sorry lah this is Singapore, I was thinking I was in Tsim Tsa Tsui.

JollyGreenP said...

Do we have regional dialects in the UK? Although a lot of the local dialect is dying out and is probably being swamped by television and "Americanisms" my own pet hate is people who say "at this moment in time". If they mean "now" why beat around the bush with all this excess verbiage and just say now! Back to the point, when I was youngster and first moved to Yorkshire on our return from Singapore I was most bemused when a friend from the local village called round and asked "ist tha cummin oot ta laark at coonting spuggeys and throsles". Once my ears and brain were tuned to the local way of speaking as I had been in Singapore, I understood what it was that had been asked of me. Are you coming out to play at counting sparrows and thrushes.

Fitting in is important and I even dropped into the local way of speaking especially the local way of truncating the word the to t' and joining it to the preceding word as in " are you going home ont' bus tonight?" Another Yorkshire expression is to describe passage of time e.g. work hours in the form "2 while 10" instead "2 until 10". Another expression that comes to mind is "on an evening" which translates as in the evening. The classic though has to be "now then youth, how ist? Which translates as "hello, how are you?"

In Glasgow the other weekend I found that Glaswegians often put in a "so we do" to emphasise a point they were making, probably as meaningless as the "lah" you so often hear in Singapore and Malaysia.

So, yes we do have local ways of speaking in the UK and it is all part of the rich tapestry of life. I would say, enjoy diversity and worry more about understanding what is being said than about how it is being said.

Victor said...

>An American lady approached the receptionist just after consulting the doctor and asked; “What is the damage?”

If I were the receptionist, I would have answered her, "Hmm..., you liver and stomach seem that way and the doc believes that your heart is too."

But seriously speaking (or should that be just "seriously"?), I also have an amusing anecdote to tell about how New Zealanders (aka Kiwis) speak their English and how they misinterprete mine:

I was on honeymoon in New Zealand in 1989 and was being served breakfast by a Kiwi lady. She asked me, "Would you like Coke breakfast?"

Since people don't usually drink Coke at breakfast, I made her repeat that a few times before I realised that she was asking whether I would like to have "cooked breakfast".


After I did a survey of the miserly breakfast spread on the buffet table, I asked the same lady, "Is that all for breakfast?"

The lady replied nonchalantly, "Yes."

Then I realised that she thought I was asking whether I could eat anything that was laid out on the table. Sigh, we only exchanged 2 sentences and both were misinterpreted.

Lam Chun See said...

"I would say, enjoy diversity and worry more about understanding what is being said than about how it is being said."

I think that's good advice which the writer of that article should know.

BTW. Another Singlish expression that is quite relevant for the times is; "play shares". Another case of literal translation from Chinese/Cantonese.

zen said...

Of course Singlish has a place in our local culture so as to provide more colour and taste, not unlike our popular street food 'char kway teow'. In fact without it our local life would be boring and taste-less. It is the unique taste of our local rojak that brings out the 'shiok' factor. Could anyone able to name a country that does have its local slangs,colloquial language and even swear-words? But it is also importance that we should use spoken or written 'street language' appropriate to the time, place and people where these words are addressed to - in other words whether the occasion is formal or informal.

peter said...

I think the problem arises because foreigners think there is an anomaly in this country. We have been "advertised" by our political leaders to be advanced and far more superior than other countries.

Here is a country which prides itself as speaking the best English in Asia (by our political leaders) because our medium of instruction from primary to tertiary level is English and the second language it is Mandarin. Yet we speak a funny kind of English and we are so proud that it is Singlish.

There is a big difference between broken English, Queen's English and Singlish. The original Singlish was English with the "OK lahs, OK Man" which are of Malay origin. This is not the same as speaking Mandarin punctuated with English words or phrases because there are no "lahs". For example "Woh Kan ni ter brother....." you get what I am saying.

In China when a Chinese speaks English, it is 100% English all the way. If they have to speak Mandarin, it is 100% all the way. You dont find Yao MIng or Joan Chen doing that. Even Cho Yuen Fatt does not do that. The same goes for Ang Lee of Taiwan. Singaporeans are not doing that. Ask any Singapore businessmen in China whether Mainland Chinese speak like we speak. The Mainlanders think we are a confused lot.

This is something I find in today's generation of JC students like for example Temasek Junior College. Go down the ladder of the less popular JCs like Pioneer or the Jurong, you find the same pattern. Visit the Bedok South Hawker Center during lunchtime, you can find what I say is true.

Brian Mitchell said...

One of the consequences of English becoming a 'world language' is that we have to accept that it will become changed and will adapt to local circumstances - at least in everyday street use.

I for one have greatly enjoyed Chun See and other blogger's frequent use of a local term (always very expressive) in the middle of what is rather good english! So its foolish to complain about Singlish - anyway my Rough Guide to Singapore contains a section on Singlish so anyone arriving should be well prepared - and I maintain - should be prepared to enjoy another fascinating form of the English language!

Brian Mitchell said...

Chun See,

having now read the article (sorry did not realise it could be clicked and increased in size) I reckon its mostly sympathetic to Singlish. Indeed its focus on the simplifiction of grammar is interesting. We often have language students staying with us here in Cambridge and I am always having to think about how to say something to them if I am going to be understood - and you know there is usually a much more simple and direct way of saying it. You busy Singaporeans have just got there a lot quicker!

llogam Creations said...

Well, when in Rome...

(or in this case, Singapore), do as the Singaporeans do.

I do not have a problem with Singlish (being Singaporean), and I do not believe that it should be done away with, but I think the main problem is that many Singaporeans are now *only* able to speak Singlish, thinking that it is proper English. Personally, I believe that it is important to know that there is a difference between the two, and to be able to switch between them.

As for Singaporeans not speaking 100% of any language, that is known as 'borrowing' and languages, especially the English language is famous for that. Words like 'tea' and 'bazaar', for example, are borrowed from Chinese and Malay respectively. There are many others, from French, German and so on. The only thing is, in English, most of the words become Anglicised, but in Singlish, most of the words are pronounced as original.[/useless info gathered as an English major]

Icemoon said...

So tea must have came from "Teh". I confused now, is teh Malay or Hokkien??

Bazaar came from Persian. The Malay is 'Pasar', as in pasar malam. So the Malay borrowed from Persian, not the other way round.

Tom said...

Tom said...
Reading the artical from the straits times by Andrew Raven,I Think people of Singapore should speak the way they speak Singlish and be proud of it . just like us scots, we are very proud the way we speak our Language, No disrespect to the people of England,if you go to a place called Inverness up in the North of Scotland you will find the people there speak the Proper english, because, after the Battle of Calloden, the highland people were forced to speak the English language, in other parts of the land we have oor different dialects,oor means our in English, here is one for young Andrew Awa and bile yer heid, in English it means Get lost.

Tom said...

Tom said...
Have to make a spelling correction, its not Calloden it is Culloden

fighting fit said...

Interestingly, there was a news story in the past few days about people in India now trying to speak with an American accent. They even have accent coaching.

Anyway, back to your topic. Every now and then, along comes someone like Andrew (or worse) trying to impose their style and culture on others. I say leave such people alone--waste of our time. To each his own man. I can switch to Americanism when I feel it helps to ease communication, but I won't stay in that mode for any longer than necessary.

Proper and plain English is good enough. And I will order coffee with a "Please" behind it if I feel like it. That said, I feel shiok.

Zen said...

Some of my relatives, especially the ladies, use singlish (including the hokkien version) to banter with each other like: the bestest, don't say me, very unix-q (for unique), very on, I also say, and even gave a hokkien girl name puay-geok to french car peugeot. It is interesting to note that all these singlish users scored mostly As for their English Language in school.

fuzzoo said...

I read the article but I didn't feel that the writer was at any point insulting Singaporeans or our English. It seemed to me he was merely writing about his inability to understand and be understood but he did not put the blame on the locals nor did he expect the locals to adhere to "standard" English. Rather he chose to analyse Singlish and in his own words become "Singlish-proficient".

sugar said...

Most Singapores can write and speak good English but because they think in dialects, they tend to speak Singlish to their fellow Singaporeans. I must say that Singapore slangs are okay if spoken to a minimal and not make it like the whole conversation is in Singlish. By slangs I mean word like "shiok". I have been living abroad for many years and everytime I hear conversations like "where got", "got meh", "why like that", I really feel embarrassed and wish that Singaporeans would speak more proper English that could be understood by foreigners. The fact that we can actually write and speak good English if we wanted to is not known unless you make it a habit to speak it that way. But I think it is hard cos our lives in Singapore evolves around hawker centers and how can you speak proper English to hawkers when you order a plate of "char kway teow" ?

I must also point out that accent and proper English are two different issues. Accent is acceptable. When a Filipino speaks English, he or she has a very strong accent but at least they speak better English than Singlish. I must say that Singlish is a total distortion of the English language.

Many times when people ask me where I came from and when they know that I am from Singapore, they would say "oh, Singaporeans speak a funny kind of English". These are the people who have been to Singapore. For people who have not been to Singapore, they would think that Singaporeans speak and write good English which is true but we don't choose to speak it that way. Some friends of mine who say that when they were in Singapore and when they hear a group of Singaporeans speaking English, they would concentrate very hard to listen to what they were talking about, but could not understand them. To them, it's a mixture of this and that and everything.

I am sorry if I offended some fellow Singaporeans but this is my opinion and I think Singlish should not be encouraged.

Tom said...

Tom Said...
Sugar,I dont know ,if you have lived in Scotland , foreigners , and even English people, find it hard to understand the Scots, mind you the Scots are very intelligent,just like the Singapore people, they can read write proper English, but dont choose to speak it properly to,so dont be embarrassed , be proud of your self and your fellow men and your country.

Anonymous said...

I understand what sugar is saying. I've been living abroad for almost 10 years and from the day I came to this place where I am now, people have been complimenting me on my English - as if Im supposed to speak bad english or something! I used to get offended, until I met up with other singaporeans and malaysians.
I cant help but think the inability to understand what someone is saying can hinder job prospects. I was raised in Singapore and I remember my parents being really strict about how we spoke. I didnt have a second language (as in we spoke english all the time and I suffered through my malay language classes) so I guess it was easier to not be influenced by singlish, which in my opinion, borrows heavily from the chinese language.
I dont think singaporeans should develope phoney accents, just speak proper english. The inventions of words and phrases are cute but if you want to venture out of singapore and be understood, drop the singlish.

peakaboo said...

Don't fake your accent, just be natural and speak proper English so that it can be understood by everyone who speaks the language. I don't think we should encourage Singlish or be proud of it. Speaking a language correctly will in my opinion, make a person able to express himself better and more fluently. Thus that person will have more confidence in whatever he does or when he speaks to strangers. This, I experience it wherever I travel abroad. So, let's practise proper English so as not to inconveniece ourselves if we do get a chance to work or live in a English-speaking country.

I remember when we were in school in the early 60's Singlish was not so common and we would get punished by the teacher if we uttered a word of Singlish.

I totally agree with Sugar and Anonymous. A few Singapore slangs is cute and unique but don't overdo it.

Icemoon said...

What's the history of Singlish like?

In the early 60s there was already the Malay + Hokkien + English + Mandarin combo, ending with lahs or lehs?

Lam Chun See said...

I agree with the readers who said that we should try to speak proper English especially when talking to foreigners. But the fact is that many of our lesser educated or Chinese educated Singaporeans are simply not able to do that. I don't think they should be the subject of redicule becos this is a common problem with all countries in which English is spoken.

I particularly take offence with that American fellow who laughed at our use of the expression "make the first move" because it is a case of "beholding the mote in your brother's eye but not perceiving the beam in your own".

As for Andrew Raven's article, I must admit that you really cannot find any obvious attack on Singlish. But I suspect the entire first half of his essay was meant to entertain his fellow expatriate readers. If you watch this skit put up by these 2 boys of (I think the United World College) and take note of the response of the largely Caucasian audience, you will know that they do get a kick out of laughing at our Singlish.

The second half of Raven's article looks to me like a cursory attempt to disguise his real intention. I think if Neil Humphreys were to write this same article, he would begin by first laughing at himself and his own countrymen before adddressing the Singaporeans.

peter said...

Have you noticed that HK Chinese cant write good English but speak English flawlessly with a Cantonese accent?

There is a difference between accenting and speaking proper English. In primary school we had to spend primary 1 learning about the phonetics and reading aloud, making sure the "t" and "d" are properly pronounced. For example, we pronounced the "d" (as the sound "the") in the word to emphasize that there was a "d" as the last alphabet in the word or it was a past tense. Still we did not end up sounding like Mr. Bean or speaking "BBC English". Mind you our generation never had PAP Kindergarten or "pre-primary" what ever they want to call it like today.

I believe there was a major change in our English education to emphasize the sciences in the early 1970s; with less attention paid to grammar, spelling and so on. It took place when Dr. Goh Keng Swee and his bunch of system engineers revamped our education system.

This was told to me by my auntie who was formerly a senior education officer in the Ministry of Education.

If that is a surprise, then in the mid-1980s someone felt that engineers were very fast learners and could "conceptualize things at one stroke" unlike humanities students. So NUS had a double-degree program whereby within 4 years you earned a B Engr + LLB. Frankly I have some of them working for me and boy o boy, they were "neither here or there". They did badly in legal analysis and writing.

Edwin said...

English is spoken in many forms and as a none english Angmoh I find singlish a big asset as it has the directness of chinese in words I can understand :-)
If I ever laugh about Singlish it is not in a mocking way but simply because I am entertained by specific qualities that it has and those make me happy.

I don't expect to and in fact don't hope that Singaporeans suddenly all will speak the queens english. It would be loss of character and lets face it, even in London not everyone speaks the Queens English.

Singlish is not a lesser form of English, it is simply your language