Singaporeans losing edge as Chinese master English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 9 12:47:45 UTC 2007

May 7, 2007

S'poreans losing edge as Chinese master English

I REFER to the letters by Mrs Ng Kim Yong ('Linguistic background to blame
for poor speakers'; ST, April30) and Mr Matthias Chew Yong Peng
('Bilingual policy spawns many fluent in neither'; ST, April 30). Our
leaders have stated correctly that Singapore needs to stay relevant to the
world to ensure its survival and secure its continued prosperity. Our
language policy in education is tied to this endeavour to stay relevant to
the world. English is and will be the universal language of commerce for
many years to come while China is an emerging economic powerhouse which
cannot be neglected.

Mrs Ng and Mr Chew may be right in pointing out the difficulty of
mastering both languages due to our unique linguistic background and
bilingual education policy. However, I urge young students to play their
part by paying attention to their spoken English and Mandarin. No matter
how much resources the Government puts in to help students, they will go
to waste if students do not play their part by making an effort to change.
It takes two to tango. Over the years, since China's opening up,
Singaporeans have had a language advantage over the Chinese by being able
to communicate in both languages, putting them in expatriate positions in
multinational companies operating in China. This advantage is fast eroding
with the Chinese closing the gap by picking up English in school,
university and after work.

I was English-educated with no formal Chinese education when I immigrated
to Singapore. After spending a decade in Shanghai as an expatriate working
in a multinational company, I can speak decent Mandarin now despite my
inability to read or write Chinese. While my Mandarin has improved, so has
the command of English among local Chinese by leaps and bounds. I see more
and more young people in Shanghai who can match the best Singaporeans in
proper English vocabulary and grammar, both spoken and written. If this
trend continues, one day we will be laughed at by the Chinese for speaking
'strange' English!

For a start, perhaps Singaporeans can make a conscious effort to cut out
the 'lahs', 'lors' and 'mahs' when speaking English to a foreigner,
especially when outside Singapore. At the same time, cut out English words
when speaking Mandarin to the Chinese. This may be the easiest way for us
to stay relevant to the world and secure our future.

Sew Kah Bin Shanghai, China


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