On Saturday, I went to the Speak Good English Movement Symposium just because I wanted to listen to speakers such as Gwee Li Siu and Adrain Tan, who were at last year’s Singapore Writers Festival closing debate and were so entertaining.
At the end of the symposium, I felt a tinge of sympathy for Goh Eck Kheng, the advocator for the good English campaign, as he seems to be fighting a losing battle against our seemingly beloved Singlish.
I was never a Singlish speaker until quite recently. I studied at Nanyang Girls High School, with Chinese as first language and English as a second language. Although I came from an English speaking home, we didn’t speak any Singlish at home. In school, the language of communication was Chinese. I don’t remember hearing much Singlish in RJC or NUS. Singlish is not to be confused with Singapore accented English, which may include some lah, meh or leh. While I don’t speak Singlish, I might have spoken some broken English. When I started work, the plastic molders I served spoke Hokkien or Chinese, and my principals at Dupont and later ICI all spoke proper English. I have never used words like cheem, arrow (as in : You very clever to arrow people ah, ownself never do.) or for that matter ownself, although I seem to be compensating now as I peppered my conversation and texts in Singlish. Mr Goh would be disappointed.
Dr Gwee Li Siu gave an example of Singlish during the forum:
Proper English: Where are you going?
Singlish : Go where? (and not where go, which is ‘grammatically wrong Singlish.)
Upon hearing that, I realised that the example he gave was what my English teachers at Nanyang would classify as broken English, as it is a direct-Chinese translated English sentence, which is 去哪里 (go where)，and which they had spent much effort correcting my classmates. When I now write dialogues in my stories, the feedback I get from my peers is that my dialogues are often too formal. I then realise this is how I normally speak, which translates into my work.
Looking at the examples of Singlish found here: http://www.nus.edu.sg/prose/box-singlish.htm and if you translate many of the examples into Chinese, they translate into perfectly proper Chinese, if you translate these Singlish words into Chinese:
can – 可以，
one, when used at the end of a sentence – 的 (as in Who say one? 谁说的？）
also – 也
ownself – 自己 (You very clever to arrow people ah, ownself never do. )
So, in effect, Singlish is broken English, as defined by my English teachers in the 70s when Singlish is not yet a term. And I agree with Mr Goh that we should correct broken English when we hear it. If we are to correct grammatically wrong written English, why not spoken too? (Except I failed to do that a day after the forum when I heard someone who was confused between lend/borrow. I just didn’t know how to correct her tactfully. )
Just the other day, my son noticed that my 8yo nephew speaks Singlish, which sounded so jarring to everyone in the family. (We correct him often.) I know then my family members are still speaking English at home and not Singlish. Phew!