I still remember my first visit to the US at a ripe young age of 21. There was this American party that I went to where I knew almost nobody except a few Singaporeans. Of course I did the Singaporean thing by trying to stick to the Singaporeans but as it always turns out, plans never go according to plans.
So there I was by myself, holding a not so cool non-alcoholic drink in my hands wondering what I should be doing next when this American guy came over to talk to me.
There I was, a Singaporean, a cosmopolitan who studied English as my first language since 6 years old, suddenly finding myself struggling really hard to make myself understood. I could barely keep up a conversation without straining myself.
Yes, my GP wasn’t that good, but surely I can socialize in English ?! We were not discussing the relevance of Socrates or Plato in modern society or anything like that. It was just this American guy trying to pick me up!
It dawned on me that I do not normally speak English. Yes, it was quite a shocker. After more than a decade in school with English as the main teaching medium, it was shocking for me to realize that I do not normally speak English. I speak Singlish.
Most foreigners cannot understand me when I blabber in Singlish. The British speaks British English, the American speaks American English, and as a Singaporean, I speak Singlish.
Overseas, I may not be able to positively identify my fellow citizens by sight, but I definitely know when I hear one, even on the phone. Foreigners usually classify us as one of them Chinese, which is in a way true, for not too long ago, we were still one big family. However when Chinese from China speak to me, the differences in culture, thought and language are apparent and vast, even though we might speak the same language.
So, who are we if we can’t claim an unique culture, a heritage or even a “language” of our own?
Nowadays, I tell foreigners I meet that English is taught in school as the first language, but the daily spoken language is Singlish. Then I reassure them that they would be understood in Singapore although it might sound like we are speaking Hindu to them.
Whatever the higher powers may think, Singlish is a powerful, complex and effective medium for social communication. It is explained rather extensively and expertly on Wikipedia. Did you know that there are several meanings to the ‘lah‘ that we use everyday without even thinking about it ? Same goes for the ‘lor’ and the ‘ler’ and seven other discourse particles. The explanation for ‘kena’ is even more impressive.
I think Singlish is the heritage that Singaporeans created from nothing, thus as Singaporeans, we should cherish it. Why try to nation build artificially when we already have something unique? Why the need to forge a foreign accent when we already have one?
However I do recognize that we must be able to speak good English when we want to. And Singaporeans should be aware that there is a difference between English and Singlish so that they can make the switch when necessary.
I am proud to say that Malcolm, a true blue Singaporean, is already a fluent speaker of Singlish.
So what language do you speak ?0