Thursday 26 May 2016

A Singlish Conspiracy?

As an academic -- OK, a failed academic, if you insist -- finding and citing the source of information is critical.

I took little notice of the excitement about Singlish in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) until the debate about the NYT article and a certain response from 'on high' came into the picture.

I did notice that the person who put the Singlish in OED is a delightful young Filipino consultant who is known to want to include ‘Filipino English’ in the OED: ‘English’ terms that had hitherto been deemed inadmissible.

Then there is the context. Political context.

I am living in a country that has become very unsure of herself (itself?). There is the Brexit vote coming up. People are saying that Britain cannot function politically, economically and militarily outside the EU.

This is the Britain which was once ‘Empire’, on which the sun never (used to) set.

If the newspapers are anything to go by, the agenda is being decided by the transgender set, as yet another establishment has been told to remove the words ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ from their toilets because they discriminate against the transgendered.

When I used to spend time in North Thailand, I often saw women in the gents’ toilets. (With hindsight, I had assumed those were women.) I would never go into a Gents’ toilet unless there is a very good reason.

[OK. I did once, when the queue outside the 'Ladies' at Musee d’Orsay was so long and my husband and son exited the Gents telling me and two other anthropologists that there was no one in the Gents. We went in, leaving dear husband to stand guard.]

But the transgender men are saying that they want to use the ladies’ toilets. Heh!

I digress.

Fact is the Brits are so unsure of who they are at the moment. A Filipino consultant on the world-embracing OED seemed like a jolly good idea.

Why did she choose to include Singlish terms? She seems to have a very good understanding of Singlish. I give her that.

Is this to subvert the use of proper English in Singapore? No standard English, no jobs.

That’s Conspiracy Theory #1.

#2 is old hat. Another confession.

My siblings and I have done well in education and career because we were often ahead of school mates in our English language. Let the truth be told.

This was partly due to my Mum's diligence in correcting our English when we went wrong. (My father spoke no English at all.) She might have had only four years of formal education. But they must have been four very good years as she could speak grammatically correct English.

Proof: You do not need a PhD in English Literature to speak and write good English. You do need a respect for rules, and my word, did Mum drill those rules into me when I was young.

“My one”, I can still hear her chastising me. There is no such thing as “my one”. This is my book. This book is mine.

No, you cannot open the tap. You turn on the tap.

No, you may not borrow the phone. You may use it.

And so on, and so forth.

One of my most cherished memories of her was when we got on a crowded bus and a young person on the aisle seat refused to move. Mum eventually went, "Excuse me, I would like to sit there." The young person reluctantly let her move into the window seat.

And then I heard my mum's voice filling the bus, "Young people these days. They don't have the courtesy to let old people sit," or something to that effect, in perfectly grammatical English.  

Hand on heart, those of us who are so prone to singing the delights and charm of Singlish, are we the same people who can, in a heartbeat, switch from Singlish to standard English (whatever this means)?

Then, I beg you, consider those families with children who do not yet have this privilege.

Let them first learn to speak and write in standard English. When they have acquired those skills, by all means, let them speak Singlish in their leisure, amongst family and friends.

Or even when they are addressing election rallies.

The only reason for not letting this happen is to ensure that we retain this privileged position that we now occupy. I have called this ‘linguistic hegemony’ elsewhere back in 2010.

It is a bit like the demise of grammar schools in Britain. Some have compared this to their beneficiaries, having climbed up the social ladder, who then turned around to pull up the ladder.

We make our children learn times tables because that is ‘knowledge’, ‘facts’, that they need at their fingertips to move on to higher-level mathematics.

An understanding of how numbers work and the consistent manner in which they work helps us grasp the music of mathematics whether it is trigonometry or calculus.

In the same way a good grasp of English -- the British are now insisting that children learn proper grammar at school -- will give us the tools to use Singlish in the most creative manner.

I am not putting down Singlish. Far from it.

Sylvia Toh, author of Eh Goondu, was the person who gave me my first writing job. (I am eternally grateful to her.)

I know for a fact that her England is very powderful.

[See also: GE15: Singlish good, English bad]


DOE Query Department said...

Hi, can I ask for your permission to reproduce this post on our education portal Explicit mention shall be made of the fact it first appeared on your site, and we shall cite LSP as the author. Hope to hear from you again:)

LSP said...

DOE: You have to send me an email contact so we can discuss this. Thank you.

Sibylla said...

I do think your mum is a rare exception. Many singaporeans nowadays are educated to degree standard in English, consider English to be their "dominant" language, yet cannot utter an error-free sentence.