Standard English Vs Singlish

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Have you heard of the phrase “same-same, but different”? It is usually used to describe people, situations, or things that are similar in one aspect but different in another. The unique thing about this phrase is that it contains words that contradict themselves but perfectly explain our life experiences. For example, if I was comparing myself against my fellow Chinese-Malay classmate, we are the same but different, in that we are both students and from Singapore but I am pure Chinese and she is of mixed race.

Singlish, when compared with English, encompasses a similar idea. They are the same, yet different. They are similar in that Singlish too has its unique grammar rules, phonology, and lexis, – adapted from both Sinitic and English languages – just like the English language (Tan, 2017). However, they differ in that Singlish has a more complicated heritage than the English language as it is a mixture of the English language with other languages/dialects, such as Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin-Chinese and Cantonese. An example of this would be the Singlish phrase, “Chope first, Chiong later” – ‘Chope’ originates from the Malay language, while ‘Chiong’ is from the Hokkien dialect. This example exemplifies the unique aspect of Singlish that is all its sub-languages are completely different from each other, yet they can blend into one language. Other examples of Singlish phrases include ‘no lah’, ‘okay what’, and ‘got meh’. Based on the examples given, it is understandable why some people consider Singlish as “a form of ‘poor’ English”. However, over time, such negative social norms have made people look down on Singlish, and even discriminate against individuals who use Singlish and those who are generally unable to speak fluent standard English.

This ongoing issue was reflected in a very down-to-earth and relatable article titled ‘Mother Tongue’ by Amy Tan (1990). In her article, she shares multiple personal anecdotes of how her mother was discriminated against due to her inability to speak fluently in standard English. An example would be back when Amy Tan was only an adolescent and her mum requested for her help to make a serious call to her stockbroker as her stockbroker would not take her seriously with her ‘limited’ English. Things escalated to the point that even the hospital staff did not bother to assist her mum in finding the CAT scan results that they lost until Tan personally called the doctor herself to resolve the issue. All these anecdotes were shared to emphasise the seriousness of the discrimination individuals who are ‘limited’ in their English language experience. However, Tan did not want all these to affect what she sees in and how she understands her mum. She wanted to break the incorrect perceptions and stereotypical views that people had associated with 'broken' English and individuals who lacked the ability to speak fluent English. To achieve this, she intentionally used grammatically incorrect words, such as ‘Englishes’, throughout her article. This was to drive across one point that is language is more than a reflection of our intelligence and about rules, but it is a form of expression. This idea was reflected in her article: “I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her [mum’s] intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts”. Therefore, how does this view of language change the way we define language and is Singlish more beneficial or harmful for us?

In an article titled ‘Singlish: an illegitimate conception in Singapore’s language policies?’ by Tan Ying-Ying (2017), she presented an objective argument between the pros and cons of Singlish. In specific, she presented to us how Singlish can be seen as a form of culture versus a ‘bad’ habit. For the view that Singlish is a form of culture, Tan Ying-Ying supports Amy Tan’s point of view that language is more than about rules. Tan Ying-Ying (2017) described language as a way for Singapore, a linguistically heterogeneous population, to have one common language (i.e. Singlish) which combines all the different languages and dialects that Singaporeans speak. This, in turn, helps to unite as a country. With Singapore being a multi-racial country, racial harmony is crucial to prevent oppositions and riots. Therefore, Singlish helps to unite us in a way which cannot be achieved through campaigns and bonding activities. For example, when we are able to speak another language (e.g. the Malay language), even if it is very basic phrases, it would make the individual from that race to feel accepted, thus promoting unity. Moreover, apart from uniting us across races, Singlish too can unite us across generations. For example, when the younger generation of Singaporeans learn Singlish, they learn bit and pieces of the various dialects which their grandparents and parents use to communicate with one another. Therefore, this bridges the generation gap between the new and older generation and preserves an aspect of their culture. Furthermore, apart from helping to unite us as a country, Singlish has also become a unique common national language, which has become such an integral part of our identity as Singaporeans. Just as Japanese is Japan’s national language, Singlish is Singapore’s national language. Hence, Tan (2017) supports and adds to Amy Tan’s view that language is more than about rules, instead it is a form of expression, identity, and culture and a way to unite people. Based on this view of language, we can say that Singlish adds value to our lives and thus, it is beneficial for us.

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Contrary to this, Tan Ying-Ying (2017) also presented why Singlish may harm us more than it benefits us. In her article, Tan (2017) explained why many authorities have been eager to eliminate Singlish, despite it playing a crucial role in uniting Singaporeans in a linguistically heterogeneous population. She based her argument (i.e. why the authorities believed that Singlish does more harm than good to us) on how the authorities defined Singlish. This group of individuals (i.e. authorities and academic teachers) see and define Singlish to be “a corrupted and incorrect form of English” that makes Singaporeans “seem less intelligent or competent”. In addition, they strongly believe that Singlish is destructive to the image and development of Singapore (Tan, 2017). Therefore, the authorities have launched multiple campaigns to combat Singlish, such as the annual ‘Speak Good English Movement’ (SGEM). SGEM was launched with the intention to promote and encourage Singaporeans to speak good standard English and to reduce their use of Singlish. Through such campaigns, Singaporeans started to form a perception that Singlish is ‘bad’, as it is discouraged and viewed negatively, and that standard English is ‘good’ since it is being promoted and accepted by the authorities. Over time, this influenced the way we judged others; individuals who could speak fluent standard English were viewed as intelligent and, hence, well respected by others (Tan, 2017). On the other hand, individuals who spoke Singlish were viewed as less intelligent and hence, “less deserving” of others’ respect (Tan, 2017). This can be seen in Amy Tan’s essay where her mum experienced negative differential treatment due to her inability to speak fluent standard English. An example includes how Amy Tan’s mum was not even given the basic respect and service she deserved as a patient in the hospital. Moreover, based on how the authorities judged Singaporeans who spoke Singlish as “less intelligent or competent”, this shows how the negative perception of Singlish has also limited our perception of other people as we judge others’ ability based on the way they speak before we can even get to know them on a personal level. This is similar to how Amy Tan shared that “my mother’s ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her”. A real-life example would be when we are asked to form our own project group in class, we have a natural tendency to group with individuals who are well-versed in standard English. However, we may regret our choice of groupmates once we start working with them and realise that there is a clash in personalities. Therefore, we should be intentional in not judging others based on their ability to speak fluently in English and instead give them a chance by getting to know them first. This is congruent with how Amy Tan was trying to drive across the point that we should not let what other people’s negative perception of someone’s ‘broken’ English misguide us on what we see in that person nor should we judge others’ based on their ability to speak fluently in English.

Nevertheless, since standard English is viewed so highly and we are all expected to be fluent in it, what is the value and importance of it? To address this, Liew and Ho (2008) wrote a blog post on the Ministry of Education website to address why ‘Good English [is] the Way to Go’. The blog post was specifically written to counter the article titled, ‘Linguists speak up for Singlish’ by Ang Yiying (2008), a linguist who believes that Singlish is beneficial for us. In Liew’s and Ho’s (2008) post, they opposed Ang’s article by arguing that the use of Singlish harms students more than it benefits them as it complicates students and limits their ability to be proficient in the English language. Liew and Ho (2008) argued that as Singapore is a tiny nation, we cannot expect foreigners to understand Singlish and we need to use an internationally common language, such as standard English, to be able to communicate with them. Their view that Singlish brings more harm than benefit and the importance of it was further emphasised and supported by Nishanthi (2018). First, she pointed out that as standard English is a language used internationally, knowing it will expand our ability to access different types of information. For example, we are able to watch almost any films we desire, including foreign films (e.g. a Thai movie), because we are able to understand the English sub-titles provided. In relation to Amy Tan’s text, despite being born into a Chinese family, Tan was able to adapt well to living in the United States as she was able to speak fluently in English. Next, knowing standard English is essential for educational purposes as it is the main language used for science and research. Last, since the English language is flexible and has a wide vocabulary bank, a benefit of learning it is that it aids us in our ability to express the same idea in different ways and with different emotions. This, in turn, helps us to better communicate our feelings, thoughts, and ideas whenever needed and is essential for others to understand us. As shown in Amy Tan’s article, where she shared how her friends struggled to understand her mum’s English due to her ‘limited’ English; some of her friends could only comprehend fifty percent of what her mum said, while some could not even understand a word she said and it was like she was speaking in a foreign language. Therefore, speaking fluent English plays a significant role in our communication with our peers. Liew and Ho (2008) too proved that it is impossible for Singlish and standard English to co-exist as “non-standard usage in speech often transfers to writing”. This negative impact of Singlish was also represented in Amy Tan’s life as she mentioned how the language used among family members has a significant role in the child’s language development. For example, her mother’s ’limited' English had negatively affected her ability to be proficient in the English language which, in turn, limited her in her ability to score well on English tests and even ‘causing’ her to get reprimanded by her ex-boss on her writing ability.

However, with determination, Amy Tan defied the odds and grew up to become a successful writer. Her success can be empirically supported with this finding that “Singlish and standard English can and do co-exist” as there no evidence that states Singlish negatively affects one’s ability to speak standard English (Ang, 2008). However, this is on the basis that the individual has a good foundation in standard English (Ang, 2008). An example of this statement is seen through Amy Tan’s life – although she was not born an English genius nor grew up with a family who could speak fluent English, she still managed to become a writer through studying hard in school. This proves that if we have a strong foundation in standard English, speaking Singlish would not negatively affect us. This, in turn, opposes Liew’s and Ho’s (2008) view on how speaking Singlish would negatively impact us in our writing and explains why Tan Ying-Ying (2017) stated that Singapore is emphasising so strongly on the importance of standard English, through campaigns such as SGEM. The authorities are trying to ensure that the majority of Singaporeans are proficient in standard English first, as opposed to Singlish (Tan, 2017). Generally, we have to reach an optimal balance between our proficiency in standard English and Singlish in order to reduce the negative effects of Singlish on us.

As mentioned by Ang (2008), “Singlish may be the bane of teachers, but it is music to the ears of linguists”. Whether we view Singlish as a language that is more beneficial or harmful for us is dependent on how we define language. Do we define it as one that is based on strict rules or a form of art for us to express ourselves such as our passion, imagery and the rhythms of our speech like as described by Amy Tan? In specific, do we see Singlish as a culture or a bad habit? Language should not only be used for us to look intelligent or competent or be dictated by rules, nor should it be limited to a single prototype or by specific rules. Instead, it is a form of art; it is a form of expression, a way to develop our national identity, and a way to promote unity among people as we get to understand others better beyond how well-versed we are in standard English. Therefore, our ability to speak fluently or to score well on a language ability test, should not define us as a person nor give us the rights to judge others. Whether Singlish is beneficial or harmful for us, it depends on how much effort we put in to build a good foundation in standard English first, before Singlish. We too have to be disciplined in knowing when we can use it and when we should use standard English. Amy Tan exemplifies this in her article through how she uses her ‘mother tongue’ only when she is with her family members and uses standard English when she’s working. If Amy Tan has mastered proficiency in both English and Singlish, then with determination, so can we.

References

  1. Ang, Y. (2008, December 11). Linguists Speak Up for Singlish. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.asiaone.com/News/Education/Story/A1Story20081209-106379.html
  2. Liew, C. B., & Ho, P. (2008, December 12). Good English the Way to Go. Ministry of Education. Retrieved from https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/forum-letter-replies/good-english-the-way-to-go
  3. Nishanthi, R. (2018). The Importance of Learning English in Today World. International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development, 3(1), 871-874. doi:10.31142/ijtsrd19061.
  4. Tan, A. (1990). Mother tongue. The Threepenny Review, 43(7).
  5. Tan, Y. Y. (2017). Singlish: an illegitimate conception in Singapore’s language policies?. European Journal of Language Policy, 9(1), 85-104.
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Standard English Vs Singlish. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/standard-english-vs-singlish/
“Standard English Vs Singlish.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/standard-english-vs-singlish/
Standard English Vs Singlish. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/standard-english-vs-singlish/> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Standard English Vs Singlish [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/standard-english-vs-singlish/
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