One month ago, I flew to Singapore. I had resigned from a good job in London to come teach English, having no real experience of teaching beforehand and only a TEFL certificate and English Literature degree to back me up.
I was one of seven new teachers undergoing training, and it seemed that this was the first teaching job for many of us which was encouraging. We represented a mixture of English dialects, from American to Kiwi, from Scottish to a Yorkshire accent.
We made our way through the materials and learned how to teach phonics to kindergartens, with only a few minor disagreements of whether the American way of saying ‘banana’ was correct compared to the English /ar/ sounding vowel. Of course, both are correct and it’s important to give the children exposure to different versions of English as they will encounter various forms in their lives.
We also delved into the kiasu mindset of the parents who want to give their child a fighting chance to succeed at seemingly any cost. Most children will participate in music, sports, language and extra tutored lessons after school and at the weekend to achieve an edge when it comes to the all important Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). Taken at the age of twelve, the results of these tests determine the future of the children in terms of which secondary school, and ultimately which college or university they attend.
As the whole curriculum is taught in English except for a lesson in the mother tongue language (which ironically is the language that the child’s father speaks), it’s our job as English teachers to ensure that it is not their understanding of the language that holds them back. In fact, English is a compulsory subject as it is considered a joint first language in this country, with the government recognising the importance of being able to communicate with the business world in English.
It’s impossible to be in Singapore and not come across the hybrid language Singlish. Although English remains the official language, since the country’s independence over 50 years ago, it is Singlish that you will hear being spoken by locals on the streets.
Ordering food at a hawker centre, or trying to follow the local soap operas is much easier if you know a few phrases. Singlish does away with many grammar constructs such as prepositions and verb inflections, and in that way resembles other regional languages such as Malay.
As a nod to the immigrant roots of the country, Singlish borrows words from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese languages, as well as Tamil from southern India. It was previously seen as a lesser educated form of communication, but since government campaigns to stamp it out in favour of ‘better English’ have failed, the country is now embracing its hybrid tongue but insists that Singaporeans are able to switch between Singlish and English in the appropriate contexts. Read this informative BBC article for more examples.
In my classroom, I often hear ‘can’ as a positive response to a question accompanied with fast nods, often with the nuanced addition of ‘lah’ at the end which, depending on the tone, can change the sentiment of the sentence (although I couldn’t yet tell you how).
As I teach the conjugations of different verbs, or introduce plural forms of countable nouns, I am aware that in Singlish it simply doesn’t exist; it’s really a shorthand way of communicating, a more efficient and less decorative form that deserves to be preserved and celebrated. It is similar to the traditional dialects in England that have resisted the onslaught of so-called ‘superior’ Received Pronunciation (RP) or Queen’s English.
So, while I teach my students English, I will be mindful of conveying it as the ‘proper’ way to speak. I’d like my students to be confident in speaking English at school and later in their professional life, but also to use Singlish whilst they’re playing with friends, or speaking to elders who perhaps only speak Singlish.
If the children cannot speak Singlish they may be considered at best, snobby, or at worst, less Singaporean. It’s important to recognise that this is Lah Lah Land after all, and the Singlish language exists to remind us of Singapore’s heritage.