Monday, July 25, 2011

Singlish – Transcends Singapore’s Cultures, Races and Social Classes

In Singapore, there are four official languages. At the top of the list is English serving as the lingua franca, followed by Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. Singapore is not only multiracial and multicultural it is also a multilingual country. So apart from the four official languages above, there are quite a few more languages and dialects spoken in Singapore today.

Probably the most interesting language is not actually a language in the truest sense. It is more a hodgepodge of words and phrases from different languages all rolled into one. What is this “language” called? Singlish! It’s no different from Spanglish (Spanish-English), Chinglish (Chinese-English) and Taglish (Tagalog-English spoken in the Philippines).

Singlish is the Singaporean English. It is English peppered with words taken from other languages and dialects spoken in the island country. It is full of colloquialisms and witty phrases often understood only by people living in Singapore. Some consider Singlish as a “low prestige” language while English is a “high prestige” language. But even so, Singlish is not only spoken in the streets and by many young Singaporeans but also by Singapore’s movers and shakers. It transcends the different cultures, races and social classes.

Aside from words borrowed from different languages spoken in Singapore, you can often hear the suffixes “ah” and “lah” during conversations with Singaporeans. The suffixes “mah” and “leh” are also used. These suffixes make Singlish unique. “Lah” and “leh” are used to affirm, assert or exaggerate something. For example, “Price too low lah.” “Ah” is used when you agree or conform to the individual you are talking to. “This girl ah, very pretty” is an example of this. Already in Singlish is “alleady” or “orready.” You can encounter phrases like “Finish alleady” or “Come orready.” The words “can” and “cannot” are widely used in Singlish. “Can” sometimes means “yes” and “cannot” is sometimes used for “no” in this colloquial language.

Unfortunately, the Singaporean government frowns on Singlish. While some find Singlish fun, inventive and witty, the government finds it inappropriate. The government sees Singlish as bad for the country’s image as a world-class financial and commercial center. In fact, through the Speak Good English Movement or SGEM, the government is trying its best to encourage its citizens to speak proper English. During the launch of SGEM, Goh Chok Tong, Prime Minister of Singapore said that “Poor English reflects badly on us and makes us seem less intelligent or competent.” The head of the SGEM finds Singlish crude.

In countries where there are more than one language used on a daily basis, isn’t it expected that a sort of marriage or intermingling between two or more languages will naturally happen? The Singaporean government is well aware that it cannot really stop its citizens from speaking English. After all, it has been proven in the past that language change is beyond the control of governments. The Singaporean government took a softer, more creative approach to try to curb Singlish via SGEM. SGEM provides English courses, quizzes, lessons, tips and activities geared at improving one’s command of the English language.

Singapore’s educational system is one of the best in Asia. Singaporeans have a good command of the English language. Singlish, like Chinglish, Taglish and the other “ishes” are not a threat to English. So to those who are worried that Singlish will overtake English one day or that it makes one look incompetent, “Chill, lah.” Singlish is not used in formal correspondence and communication. It is merely another means of getting a message across during informal conversations.

It's amazing how language connects people of different cultures, race, creeds and beliefs.