High cost of Singlish

Anthea Fraser Gupta A.F.Gupta at leeds.ac.uk
Wed May 18 10:56:31 UTC 2005

>>From THE STRAITS TIMES (Singapore)


NB: SGEM is the 'Speak Good English Movement':

IC: 'identity card'

More on Singlish from links on my webpage. 'Singlish' is the contact
variety of Singapore English that for educated speakers functions as an
L variety in a very leaky diglossia, rather like Jamaican Patwa, or like
a dialect in Germany does. But because Singapore has native and
non-native speakers of English, there are low-proficiency speakers of
English who speak Singlish as a non-native variety and who do not
control Standard English. This is the background to the discourse.

The example in this text, 'You see there, got, got. Not there, no got',
is the kind of Singlish that would not be used by a native/proficient
speaker of English but by someone low on the proficiency continuum.
Translated into native-speaker Singlish, 'no got' would be 'don't have'.
And a Standard English translation is "If you see it there, we've  got
[or 'don't have'] it. If it's not there, we don't have [or 'haven't
got'] it."


May 18, 2005

High cost of Singlish

OH why can't the English learn to speak...English? That was the question
Professor Henry Higgins posed in My Fair Lady. If it could be directed
at the English - whose native tongue, after all, is rumoured to be
English - it can also be directed at others who allegedly speak the
language. Where Singaporeans are concerned, the question goes beyond
accent. It does not matter whether one speaks English like Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong or one speaks it like others in his Cabinet.
Higgins might have been correct to believe that if an English
flower-girl spoke like a Duchess, she might pass for a Duchess, but no
Singaporean who spoke like an Englishman or an American would become
one. The aim of Singapore's Prof Higgins, as represented by the Speak
Good English Movement, is altogether more modest: It is not to encourage
Singaporeans to speak English with any particular accent, but to speak
it intelligibly; it is not so as to pass for an English Duchess, but to
pass for an English-speaker.

Defenders of Singlish would argue that pidgin is part of our Singapore
identity. The argument is juvenile for two reasons. First, Singlish
negates the whole purpose of language, which is communication. What's
the use of speaking a demotic tongue that nobody but Singaporeans - and
that too, not all Singaporeans - can comprehend? Second, there are
usable identities and there are crippling ones. For example, addiction
is a part of the identity of drug-addicts, but that doesn't make
addiction a valuable trait. Similarly, just because Singlish is
identifiably Singaporean doesn't mean Singaporeans ought to value it.
Spitting was once identifiably Singaporean too, but Singaporeans haven't
clung to it as though their ICs depended on it. A fine of $500 sufficed
to consign that sputum of useless identity to history.

Unfortunately perhaps, it is not possible to fine Singlish out of
existence. The organisers of SGEM have wisely taken an educational
approach. They aim to convince Singaporeans that good English is an
economic necessity. Globalisation is a fact and English is its medium.
Not to speak it well will disadvantage Singaporeans against other
English-speakers. 'You see there, got, got. Not there, no got' is not
only comical, it can also be very costly. One can lose billion-dollar
contracts if foreigners are convinced 'not here, no got' English.

*     *     *     *     *
Anthea Fraser Gupta (Dr)
School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT
NB: Reply to a.f.gupta at leeds.ac.uk
*     *     *     *     *

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