Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't mix Singlish with identity

Recently I sent this letter to the Straits Times:

To be or to be – what is the question hah?

“Should Singaporeans speak a standard English or Singlish?” is the wrong question.

We need to “go stun” (back up a little) to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language – any language – fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion. Then only do we know how/which to choose.

Many have observed that code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is a common phenomenon in Singapore.

My Sociology professor reasoned, “But you can’t translate the concept ‘pek-chek’, can you?” No, I can’t. I cannot even spell it.

This difficulty in writing down the language is an intrinsic part of the problem.

We borrow words like “anomie” and “Weltanschauung” in Sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents. Similarly, when discussing localisms the use of a Singlish term may be appropriate.

However a lot of conversations I overheard seem to suggest that speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can only cope with the most superficial of thought processes. So:

(1) Do we want (our children) to learn a language that would give them access to the rich cultural heritage that that language has to offer?

(2) Do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to scientific theory, theology and philosophy, for example?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down. Would it ever evolve to such a level to give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Admittedly most of us read foreign literature in (a good) English translation. What are the chances that Hegel, for example, would be translated into Singlish in my lifetime?

Of course, Singlish has its place amongst our family and friends. It made me feel “at home” even with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a staggering 37 years.

However because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we have to choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin, French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

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What was published was this rather bland version:

Sep 18, 2010
Don't mix Singlish with identity

THE question of whether Singaporeans speak standard English or Singlish is the wrong one ('Getting it right - from the start'; Sept 1).

We need to back up a little to ask whether Singaporeans need, or wish, to speak and write a language - any language - fluently enough to hold a sustained, logical and sometimes protracted discussion.

Only then would we know how or what to choose.

Code-switching within a sentence (English, Mandarin, Singlish) is common. We borrow non-English words like 'anomie' and 'Weltanschauung' in sociology because there are no accurate English equivalents.

Similarly, when discussing a local custom or peculiarity, a Singlish term may be more appropriate.

But the truth is, many speakers simply do not have the vocabulary to complete a sentence in the language with which they started.

A superficial grasp of any language means we can cope with only the most superficial of thought processes.

So, do we want children to learn a language that will give them access to the rich cultural heritage that it has to offer?

And do we wish to speak a language sufficiently well to discuss more profound issues relating to, for example, scientific theory, theology and philosophy?

Singlish, like Cantonese, is difficult to write down.

Would it ever evolve to a level that would give us the equivalent of a Shakespeare, Voltaire or Li Bai?

Of course, Singlish has its place among family and friends.

It made me feel at home with my Tiong Bahru Primary School classmates after a separation of some 37 years.

However, because Singapore is that little red dot that trades (in goods and knowledge) with the rest of the world, we must choose to learn a language that is able to serve this purpose.

For as long as we conflate the issues of speaking a language well (be it English, Mandarin or French) with that of our national identity (that there is nothing wrong with Singaporeans speaking Singlish) we will never arrive at the logical conclusion to either of these.

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