Singapore English: Wikis

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Singapore English (Nuvola Singaporean flag.svg SgE) refers to varieties of English spoken in Singapore. English is the first language in Singapore. Singapore is unique as it is probably the only country in Asia that has English as its first language. Singapore English is an integral part of the Singaporean identity. English is officially the only language of instruction in Singapore's education system.

There are two main forms of English spoken in Singapore - Standard Singapore English(SSE) and Singlish. Many Singaporeans speak Standard Singapore English(SSE) or Singlish or alternate between the two. Singaporeans and foreigners who are weak in English tend to speak either Singlish or broken English or alternate between the two.

Being a multi-lingual and cosmopolitan city with 36% of the population made up of foreigners[1] (most of whom do not speak English), the English fluency level of residents in Singapore varies vastly. While some people speak Standard Singapore English, others may speak Singlish or broken English.

Contents

Standard Singapore English (SSE)

Standard Singapore English is the standard form of English used in Singapore. Standard Singapore English tends to follow British spelling and grammar though there are significant American influences. This is due to the proliferation of American shows on free to air televison in Singapore. It is quite common for Standard Singapore English speakers to use both British and American spelling.

There are also some Singaporean words in Standard Singapore English. Examples include "Fish ball noodles" and "Esplanade".

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Standard Singaporean accent

The Standard Singaporean accent can be best described as having a British base but with influences of Mandarin, Malay and Indian in its intonation and pronounciation. The Standard Singaporean accent is largely non rhotic.

The Standard Singaporean accent is neutral sounding and does not veer towards British or American speech.Most native English speakers will notice a variety of accents in the Standard Singaporean accent. Some people mistake the Standard Singaporean accent as similar to the accent of Malaysian English speakers but both accents are very different.

The Standard Singaporean accent is commonly heard amongst educated Singaporeans or on prime time news on MediaCorp Channel 5.

Speakers with a Standard Singaporean accent

Singaporeans such as Lee Hsien Loong, Vivian Balakrishnan, Tanya Chua,Pierre Png, Adrian Pang, Florance Lian, Rosalyn Lee, Jamie Yeo, Lim Kay Tong, Mah Bow Tan and Tan Kheng Hua speak with a Standard Singaporean accent.

Some older Singaporeans who were born before 1965 (when Singapore was still a British colony) speak with a British or near Received Pronunciation accent. It is rare to hear younger Singaporeans speak that way now. Such speakers include Edwin Thumboo, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Pek Siok Lian and Lee Kuan Yew.

The Standard Singapore accent, just like Received Pronounciation in the UK, is an accent (a form of pronunciation) and a register, rather than a dialect (a form of vocabulary and grammar as well as pronunciation).

History of Standard Singapore English

Singapore English derives its roots from 146 years (1819-1965) of British colonial rule over Singapore. Prior to 1965, the standard form of English in Singapore had always been British English and Received Pronounciation. After Singapore declared independence in 1965, English in Singapore began to take a life of its own, leading to the development of modern day Standard Singapore English.

English had been the administrative language of the colonial government, and when Singapore gained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, the local government decided to keep English as the main language in order to maximize economic prosperity. The use of English as the nation's first language serves to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. As the global language for commerce, technology and science, the promotion of English also helps to expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy.[2]

Standard Singapore English is mainly British in writing. However, since American shows are widespread on Singapore's free-to-air TV channels, some American spellings have made their way into Standard Singapore English.

Most of the materials written about Singapore English is about Singlish because Standard Singapore English, in its written form, has few deviations from Standard English.

Foreign accents in Singapore

In Singapore, one is exposed to a wide range of foreign English accents other than the Singaporean accent. Singapore is the 16th largest trading partner of America. Singaporean free-to-air TV features many American shows such as Prison Break, American Idol, etc. The American accent is commonly heard on Singaporean TV. The British accent can be heard on the news channels and radios as well.

Filipino accents are commonly heard as well. There are many Phillipino expatriates in Singapore. Many Phillipinos work as domestic helpers in Singapore while others work as professionals in a wide range of occupations. There are also many Indians in Singapore. The Indian accent can be heard daily on the streets of Singapore.

Many foreigners in Singapore come from Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Australia and Malaysia. Accents from these places can be heard as well.

Singlish

Singlish is a portmanteau of the words Singaporean and English, is an English dialect spoken colloquially in Singapore. Countless articles have been written about Singlish because it is the more "unique" form of English in Singapore. Unlike Standard Singapore English which is mainly similar to Standard English, Singlish is a dialect of English and consists of many discourse particles and loan words from Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien.

Some people mistakenly address Singlish as Singapore English but that is incorrect. Singapore English refers to Standard Singapore English. Many Singaporeans are not speakers of Singlish.

To non Singlish speakers, Singlish often sounds like pidgin English, hence it is also commonly mistaken as a pidgin. But Singlish is not a pidgin, it is a dialect of English similar to Jamaican Patois, Scottish English and Geordie etc.

Singlish is commonly regarded with low prestige in Singapore. For this reason, Singlish is not used in formal communication.

Singlish speakers

One notable Singlish speaker is Phua Chu Kang, a comedic, fictitious, lowly educated Singaporean who works as a building contractor. Phua Chu Kang speaks exclusively in Singlish.Some Singlish speakers who are weak in English may speak in a mixture of Singlish and broken English. This is often seen at the coffee shops in Singapore.

Criticisms about Singlish

The proliferation of Singlish has also been controversial. Many Singlish speakers are able to code switch to Standard Singapore English but some (mostly those who have a poor grasp of English) are not able to speak Standard Singapore English. Singlish has come under heavy criticism from the international community and Singaporeans alike. Unlike Standard Singapore English, Singlish is not easily understood by English speakers of other dialects. The main difficulties in understanding Singlish are its loanwords and syntax, which are often more pronounced in informal speech.

The Singapore Government's official stand is that Singaporeans should speak Standard Singapore English. To promote Standard Singapore English, the Singapore Government has launched the Speak Good English Movement.

The use of Singlish is greatly frowned on by the government, and two former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have publicly declared[3] that Singlish is a substandard English that handicaps Singaporeans, presents an obstacle to learning proper English, and renders the speaker incomprehensible to everyone except another Singlish speaker.

Current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has also said that Singlish should not be part of Singapore's identity.[4]

Proponents of Singlish

Proponents of Singlish argue that most native English speakers around the world do not speak Standard English daily anyway. Most native English speakers have their own English dialect, and like Singlish, these dialects cannot be easily understood by outsiders as well.

For example, a British man might speak in Geordie or Scots, an Irish might speak in Hiberno English and a Jamaican might speak in Jamaican Patois.

Therefore, Singlish should have its place in Singapore. However, Standard English is still very important for obvious reasons.

Code switching from Singlish to Standard Singapore English

While some Singlish speakers are able to code switch to Standard Singapore English, others (mostly those who have a poor grasp of English) are not able to do so. For the uninitiated, it can be quite hard to differentiate Singlish from broken English.

Generally, employees in bigger and more formal companies veer towards Standard Singapore English. These employees tend to alternate between Standard Singapore English and Singlish. Example of such companies include fast food outlets, restaurants, the majority of offices, cinemas, schools, government services, internationally known stores and banks.

Employees in smaller companies in the vincinity of HDB estates tend to lean towards speaking Singlish and Mandarin. Any English that is spoken tend to veer towards Singlish or broken English. Example of such companies include neighbourhood coffee shops and neighbourhood retail outlets.

Large number of non-English speaking foreigners in Singapore

The huge population of non-English speaking foreigners in Singapore also brings with it some new challenges. 36% of the population in Singapore are foreigners and foreigners make up 50% of the service sector.[5] Therefore, it is very common to encounter service staff who are not fluent in English. Most of these non English speaking staff speak Mandarin Chinese. Some of them speak broken English or Singlish, which they have learnt from the locals.

Broken/ Pidgin English

Singaporeans and foreigners who are weak in English tend to speak broken English. Some might speak with a mix of Singlish and broken/pidgin English. This is quite common in the coffee shops and retail stores in HDB areas of Singapore.

Native English speaker status of Singaporeans

Singapore is unique as it is the only country in Asia where English is used as a first language. This has given rise to the debate about whether Singaporeans are native English speakers. Generally speaking, someone is a native speaker of the language if he/she speaks it from a young age of four or five years old. If we were to go by this definition, most if not all young Singaporeans under the age of 50 can be considered native English speakers.

However, it is abundently clear that not all Singaporeans have native-like English speaking abilities. This is similar to other countries with English as their first language such as the UK and America. Every English speaking country has some citizens who do not have native-like English speaking/writing abilities, so Singapore is not unique in this sense. Some Singaporeans are only able to speak Singlish and are unable to code-switch to Standard Singapore English. Once again, this phenomenon can be observed in all English speaking countries since most native English speakers have their own local dialects as well. For example, a Scottish man might not be able to code switch from broad Scots to Scottish English. A small minority of older Singaporeans above 50 years old may not be able to speak any English at all. Although all Singaporeans are educated through English, many of them do not speak English as their main language at home. [6] English is the second most commonly spoken language in Singaporean homes. The first being Mandarin Chinese.

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)
Language 1990 2000 2005
English 18.8 23.0 29.4
Mandarin Chinese 23.7 35.0 36.0
Other Chinese Languages 39.6 23.8 18.2
Malay 14.3 14.1 13.2
Tamil 2.9 3.2 3.1

A point to note is even though 70% of Singaporeans do not speak English as their main language at home, most of them still speak some English at home. Most of them will also speak English outside their homes, at work, in school or while chatting with their friends.

There is an increasing trend of Singaporeans speaking English at home. For children who started primary school in 2009, 60% of Chinese along with 60% Indian pupils; and 35% of Malay pupils predominantly speak English at home.[7] This means that 56% of Singaporean families with children in Primary 1 predominantly speak English at home. Becase many Singaporeans grew up with English as their first language in school, some Singaporean Chinese may not be able to speak Mandarin. Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor of Singapore is one such Singaporean Chinese.

Some countries such as Korea do not regard Singaporeans as native English speaker. Singaporeans are unable to qualify as EFL teachers in Korea. This is has brought about some controversy. Due to the small size of Singapore, a few recruiters of English language teachers do not consider Singaporeans as native English speakers. This is ironic as many Singaporeans can only read and write in English.

Only 8.2% of South Africans speak English at home[8] yet South Africa is considered a native English speaking country by Korea and many EFL countries.

Sentiments towards the English language in Singapore and a closer look at English in Singapore

It is now widely accepted that English is the first language of Singapore. However, some Singaporeans have different sentiments towards the English language.

In 2010, there are these following groups of people in Singapore: [9]

1. Those who know no English (very few people, mostly drawn from those born before the 1950s)

2. Those for whom English is a foreign language they have little ability in and seldom speak (mostly older people, but also some less educated younger people)

3. Those who learnt English at school and can use it but who have a dominant other language (many people, of all ages)

4. Those who learnt English at school and for whom it has become the dominant language (many people, of all ages)

5. Those who learnt English as a native language (sometimes a sole native language, but usually alongside other languages) and for whom English is still the dominant language ( an increasingly common pattern in younger age groups)

Regarding English as a foreign language

A small minority of Singaporeans (mostly the older and lesser educated) may still regard English as a foreign language. They might argue that English is "not the language of their race". They tend to speak mainly Mandarin, Chinese dialects or Malay. For example, a Chinese Singaporean might reject English as the language of the English and speak mainly in Mandarin. This is precisely how Singlish was developed.

This line of thinking is flawed. Even in the UK, the birthplace of the English language, half of all British people are not English but most still speak English as their sole language. The Scottish or Welsh or those living in Cornwall all have their own ancestral languages (namely Scots, Welsh, Cornish). English is an official language in 55 countries worldwide; (see List of countries where English is an official language) and is the sole official language in countries such as Ghana, Fiji, Jamaica, Bahamas, Sierra Leone, Barbados and Belize.

If one were to subscribe to the "language of your race" argument, every English speaker in the world today would be speaking a foreign language except for the English people themselves. Besides, the first language of Singaporeans Chinese (of the Singaporean race) would naturally be English since it is the first language of the nation.

Pushing for an "English only" Singapore

There are also some Singaporeans who regard English as the most useful language in Singapore and the world. They might push for an "English only" Singapore. They point out that English is an official language in 55 countries (see List of countries where English is an official language) and in most supranational bodies such as the UN and EU. Mandarin Chinese is an official language in only three countries - China, Taiwan and Singapore. Malay is an official language in only four countries - Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. Tamil is an official language in only three countries - Sri lanka, India and Singapore.

Pushing for greater Mandarin usage in Singapore

36% of the population in Singapore are foreigners and foreigners make up 50% of the service sector.[10] Many of these non English speaking staff come from China and speak Mandarin Chinese. Therefore, it is very common to encounter service staff who are not fluent in English. This has given rise to a trend of more Mandarin speakers in Singapore. Some Singaporeans argue that with the possible rise of China, Mandarin will be increasingly useful. However, it is important to note that China still has many inherent problems with its political system, healthcare, education, poverty and civil society. China has to resolve these problems before it can become a Superpower. Due to these problems, it may never become a Superpower. While China is the second largest economy in the world (mainly due to its large population of 1.3 billion Chinese), Chinese GDP per capita of $3,700 is only 1/10 of Singapore's GDP per capita; and lower than the GDP per capita of Iran and Thailand. Even with the best possible scenario, and assuming that America's GDP per capita does not increase(which is very unlikely), China will need at least 70 years to reach the same level of GDP per capita as America.

Some Singaporean Chinese who are interested in working in China point out that China already has 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers, they definitely don't need anymore Mandarin speakers. For Singaporean Chinese to compete in China, they would need to have a competitive edge, which is their native-like ability in the English language.

English usage amongst different groups of Singaporeans

Amongst the various major races in Singapore, the majority of Eurasian Singaporeans and Indian Singaporeans tend to speak English as their main language at home. Around 30% of Chinese Singaporeans and 15% of Malay Singaporeans speak English as their main language at home. [11]

Generally, the younger/more educated/richer a Singaporean is, the more likely it is for he/she to speak English as his/her first language and the more likely it is for him/her to speak Standard Singapore English instead of Singlish. [12]

For example, among Singapore Chinese, 48.5% of those with university education speak English as their main language at home. In stark contrast, only 5.3% of those with below secondary school education speak English as their main language at home.

The same applies for the Singaporean Malays. 46% of Singaporean Malays with university education speak English as their main language at home while only 3.3% of those with below secondary school education speak English as their main language at home. [13]

See also

References

  1. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/population2009.pdf
  2. ^ Anne Pakir (1999). "Bilingual education with English as an official language: Sociocultural implications" (pdf). Georgetown University Press. http://digital.georgetown.edu/gurt/1999/gurt_1999_25.pdf. 
  3. ^ Deterding, David (2007) Singapore English, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 90-91.
  4. ^ Jeremy Au Young (2007-09-22). "Singlish? Don't make it part of Spore identity: PM". The Straits Times. http://www.straitstimes.com/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/STIStory_160322.html. 
  5. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/population2009.pdf
  6. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/ghsr1/chap2.pdf
  7. ^ http://www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_471530.html
  8. ^ http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/language.htm
  9. ^ 1998. The situation of English in Singapore. Chapter Four in Foley, J A, T Kandiah, Bao Zhiming, A F Gupta, L Alsagoff, Ho Chee Lick, L Wee, I S Talib, W Bokhorst-Heng. English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore. Singapore Institute of Management/ Oxford University Press: Singapore, 106-126.
  10. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/population2009.pdf
  11. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/ghsr1/chap2.pdf
  12. ^ 1998. The situation of English in Singapore. Chapter Four in Foley, J A, T Kandiah, Bao Zhiming, A F Gupta, L Alsagoff, Ho Chee Lick, L Wee, I S Talib, W Bokhorst-Heng. English in New Cultural Contexts: Reflections from Singapore. Singapore Institute of Management/ Oxford University Press: Singapore, 106-126.
  13. ^ http://www.singstat.gov.sg/pubn/popn/ghsr1/chap2.pdf

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