Saturday, October 02, 2010

Linguistic Hegemony: Cockles and Muscles

(A shorter, less controversial version of this was published in the Straits Times online section on 11th October. I had assumed that the Editor was not going to run it. Apologies for the overlaps.)

The English-Singlish debate has thrown up a vociferous group defending the use of Singlish, largely because they see Singlish as being tied up with a Singapore identity. (I tried to explain how being a good Singaporean should not preclude us from learning to speak good English in a letter to the press.)

This group seems to be made up of people who are able to speak (or at least write) excellent English when they choose to.

There is a deafening silence, at least in the English cyber-media (and understandably so), from the Singlish-speaking group who could most benefit from learning to speak good English.

If I were a Marxian sociologist (not the same as being a Marxist, nota bene) I would say that this ‘good English’ group own the “means of production” and the ‘Singlish’ group do not.

In original Marxist philosophy the bourgeoisie own the “means of production” – land, tools and other resources – unavailable to the proletariat who merely provide the labour.

In Singapore today we can equate “means of production” to access to, or monopoly of, a good standard of English, and with it, ideas, knowledge, jobs, money and therefore, power.

By championing Singlish the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ are ensuring that the ‘linguistic proletariat’ continue to be ignorant of how they and their children are being deprived of these “means of production”.

I have spent enough time working on the factory floor to know that parents in this ‘linguistic proletariat’ are unlikely to march up to the school principal to flex their collective muscle and demand that their children are taught English grammar so that they could speak and write proper English.

It is therefore a form of hegemony when the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ act to ensure that the social mobility of the ‘linguistic proletariat’ is, henceforth, effectively curtailed.

Outside of economic gain there is another issue related to the grasp of ample language skills: we need good language skills to think through complex ideas.

The tools of language, like the keys on a piano, are all there. Just as good music would evoke a response, a good leader could put words together in such a way that listeners could go, “Wow! I’ve never thought of it that way.”

Good use of language could stir listeners to action. Think of famous speeches like "I have a dream" and "We shall fight [them] on the beaches", etc.

In his recent National Day Rally speech did the Singapore PM choose to inspire?

Instead he chose to dwell on bread-and-butter issues, using anecdotes and case studies to engage, explain and communicate.

Perhaps he had discerned that his audience were unlikely to have the vital language skills to be inspired by clever rhetoric. He has learned that they much prefer to talk cockles and chilli*.

Years of languishing in a linguistic torpor have guaranteed that enough people remain merely useful and utterly apathetic. So apathetic that there is no real fear of uprising.

But alas! these same people cannot be stirred to action either.

Think about it. (And if you do, I am almost certain you won’t be thinking in Singlish.)

*In a 2006 speech the PM used the phrase "mee siam mai hum" which translates into "a spicy local noodle dish without cockles" to illustrate a point. It was then noted that "mee siam" is never served with "hum" (cockles). So did he mean "mee siam mai hiam" where "hiam" refers to "chilli"? What's the point of ordering a spicy noodle dish without the spice? Whatever the defence for this mistake was given, the suspicion remained that this PM has not eaten at hawker centres as most Singaporeans do, suggesting that he was (is?) completely out of touch with the electorate.


stayer staying elsewhere said...

with ref to your contention that "By championing Singlish the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ are ensuring that the ‘linguistic proletariat’ continue to be ignorant of how they and their children are being deprived of these “means of production”.

My parents were illiterate folk who spoke only Hokkien, but they made sure their 8 kids had their school text books (hand me downs)and encouraged them to borrow books from the library cos they could not afford to buy any..we all turned out well English-language wise. I believe that the problem with the drop in English standards is that kids have no time to read for leisure these days... too much academic pressure on kids and economic pressure on parents. The presence of other spoken languages/dialects whether Hokkien/Hindi/Tamil/Malay/Singlish do little to curtail one's learning of English..To suggest that "the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ act to ensure that the social mobility of the ‘linguistic proletariat’ is, henceforth, effectively curtailed" is far too sweeping a statement to make...Kids just need time to read for pleasure - that's the only way to improve in any language.I feel sad that my younger child has lost the use of dialect...and it would be a sad day if Singaporeans lost Singlish..

LSP said...

Thanks for comment, stayer. Like you, my mum collected old textbooks so that we (six of us kids) had books to read. We also made much use of the library. When I worked in factories I realized that while parents wanted their children to have tuition they did not know how to go about finding good tutors. They want to help their children but do not know how. When speakers of good English argue that Singlish is part of our Singaporean identity (which it is) and insist that there is nothing wrong with speaking Singlish, they seem to have overlooked the fact that there are many Singaporeans of all age groups who are only able to speak "English" of the "Singlish" variety. These are the people whose life chances could be improved by learning to speak and write a standard English. Let these good English speakers speak Singlish by all means, but give those who do not have good English a chance to improve. Petition the schools to start teaching grammar again, eg. It would be sad indeed if Singaporeans lose Singlish, but given our knowledge economy the ability to speak an international language well is also important. And this is a quite separate issue from our Singaporean identity.

stayer staying elsewhere said...

I'm not saying good English is not important..but don't blame the poor standard of English on Singlish. Cos u could just as easily blame dialect or cockney for any drop in English standards elsewhere. Don't turn this Singlish vs English thing into a class war without addressing the root cause of poor English standards. Asking schools to teach grammar is one thing, sowing discord or imagining a class war is something else altogether...Lots of countries are using English in their own way ...Labelling people whether using stayer / quitter heartlander / cosmopolitan aren't helpful. Using bourgeoisie / proletariat just becos a group think Singlish should be left alone is another form of labelling that I find ill-conceived..Just stating my honest opinion...

LSP said...

Thank you for your opinion which of course you, stayer, are entitled to and which I respect. Nowhere have I said that this IS a class war. I am saying that IF we use a Marxian analysis -- which is an analytic tool or framework that certain sociologists prefer -- then one could say that a hegemoney is slowly creeping into place. I understand that grammar is not taught in schools any more. Who made this decision? Why? To whom much has been given much is expected. Instead of saying that Singlish is such a wonderful thing (and I agree it is especially when it is NOT transliterated Hokkien vulgarities) AND there is no need to learn to speak proper English (which I don't agree with), I would like to see the good English speakers who code-switch effortlessly between English and Singlish help to make it easier for those who do not yet speak good English speak it better. Maybe petition the necessary authority to bring back the teaching of grammar, encourage children to listen more to radio and watch less of TV, etc. Singaporeans must not lose their competitive edge in this highly globalized world. C'est tout.

stayer staying elsewhere said...

no one's saying speak Singlish INSTEAD of proper English...all I'm saying is "Leave Singlish alone". Don't use it as a "scapegoat" for the poor standard of English..there are many reasons for the latter.. academic stress etc which i alluded to earlier...
Your statement "It is therefore a form of hegemony when the ‘linguistic bourgeoisie’ ACT TO ENSURE (emphasis mine) that the social mobility of the ‘linguistic proletariat’ is, henceforth, effectively curtailed" speaks volumes about whether you are suggesting a class war...In any case, I guess we can agree to differ on this issue.This is after all your blog. Just wanted to highlight that it's too easy blaming Singlish rather than looking at the overall problem of education in Singapore. Perhaps u might find this blog informative..

Lewis Chuang said...

Dear LSP,

I am responding to your comment to the forum of ST.

It appears to me somewhat disingenuous for you to be caricaturing proponents of Singlish as:
a) (linguistic) bourgeoisie who are
b) opponents of social mobility

I am certain that people speak Singlish for less sinister reasons as you have listed. Also, the burden of ensuring a good education does not fall upon the general community, but the educational authorities and parents themselves. A campaign for that promotes good English at the expense of colloquial English will not work anywhere in the world, simply because it is unrealistic. Governments and parents alike should simply accept that these are the real challenges of living in a community.

The proposal that promoting Singlish will simply cause the `linguistic proletariat' to be ignorant of their inability to speak good English is a crude (and I would argue, false) assumption. To begin, the `linguistic proletariat' -as you have so labelled- are likely to have a better grasp of standard English than their parents or their parents before them. This is a product of time, the educational system and, perhaps, the pragmatic enforcement of many parents.

If there already exists a large community of so-called `linguistic bourgeoisie' who are capable of code-switching, I am ready to suppose that the same would be true for the Singaporean community at large, given time. Do bear in mind that those who are able to `code-switch' did not do so in a sterile environment, bred in isolated communities and set apart from the so-called `linguistic proletariat'.

There are few, if any, who would argue for Singlish as a replacement for standard English. However, Singlish serves a function that cannot be replaced by standard English. It is a `code' that transcends class-boundaries in Singapore. This is a point that you have alleged to in your communication. It is for this very reason alone that motivates us to defend from the denigration of the `linguistic fascists'.