Apr 14, 2010

Singlish, English and the Way We Speak and Write

It started with my eight-year-old son using a couple of cuss words. He was having an argument with my daughter, and he used a few cuss words on her. My eyes opened wide and I asked him if he even knew what those words meant. He didn't. He had used the words, just because he had heard some other boys in school use them.

I sternly told him not to use that kind of language again. Still I wasn't too surprised that this had happened. He does attend an all-boys' school, after all. As a parent, I just have to learn to deal with it. Anyway, one day my son will be in the army and then he will inevitably acquire an even more colourful vocabulary.

But until then, I do not want him to develop any habit of using cuss words.

So I started to pay more attention generally to the way my son talks. When he realised that I was doing that, he stopped using his cuss words. However I couldn't help but notice that he now also speaks a lot of Singlish. This isn't exclusively the schools' fault - Mrs Wang and I also speak a lot of Singlish at home.

And then I also noticed that my daughter also speaks quite a lot of Singlish.

The difference between Mrs Wang and I, on one hand, and our two children, on the other hand, is that when Mrs Wang and I need to, we can easily switch out of the Singlish mode, and speak proper English. It's not so easy for the children to do it. So now, I'm putting some effort into training them to speak proper English again.

I've made it into a sort of a game at home. If anyone of us catches another family member speaking Singlish, we can go beeeeeep and the person has to correct himself or herself, and rephrase what he or she was saying, in proper English. So far, so good. The kids are seeing this as a fun thing.

I think that Singlish has a certain charm. It's part of our culture. It helps Singaporeans to relate to each other. Singlish has a number of highly expressive phrases, capable of conveying a wider range of emotions (in contrast, notice how flat and dull many Brits sound, when they speak proper English in the typically understated manner of the Brits). I wouldn't mind my children speaking Singlish, if they are also able to switch to proper English when they need to. But I think that first, they had better master proper English.

The odd thing is that both children write very well (for their respective ages). The boy is able to write a long essay, not only without any Singlish, but with almost no grammatical errors at all. In fact he writes with a remarkable resemblance to Enid Blyton.

This seems to indicate that different parts of the human brain process language in its written form, and language in its spoken form. The children have learned to write, based on what they read. But they have learned to speak, based on what they hear. That's why they write excellent proper English, but speak Singlish.

It's interesting, the way children learn language.

Apr 7, 2010

The Fine Quality of our Dear Deputy Prime Minister

I wonder whether Teo Chee Hean got up in the morning, read the newspaper article below and then felt a little stupid about himself. Or perhaps his skin has become too thick for that.

    ST Apr 6, 2010
    Have more faith in the Singapore system

    SINGAPOREANS should be more confident in their country and not be swayed by outsiders who have no stake in how society here works, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said.

    Responding to a student who asked if Singapore would adopt a new political attitude or stick to its Asian values stance, he said: 'We need to be more self-confident.'

    He related how when he became education minister in 1997, he was surprised to find that teachers lacked confidence in themselves, even though they were doing a great job.

    'Everybody was telling them that they were doing the wrong things,' he said. 'I said: How can this be? People are coming to learn from us, see how we teach, why we are successful. Yet our teachers don't have self-confidence.'

    It led to Mr Teo resolving to set up a unit at the National Institute of Education for teachers to study why Singapore's education system works and how it can be improved further.

Notice that the student wasn't asking about self-confidence. He wasn't asking about "outsiders". He wasn't asking about what Singaporean teachers were doing wrong or right. He wasn't asking Teo to talk about his past projects in 1997 at NIE.

The student was asking Teo whether Singapore would adopt a new political attitude or stick to its Asian values.

Teo's response was, of course, totally irrelevant. Teo might as well have said: "Oh, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. Birds have wings and dogs can pee. I hereby refuse to answer your question."

That response would, at least, have been honest. And confident. Although still stupid.