I just read this letter in the Straits Times forum and wholly agree with it. The writer notes that while Singapore has had an edge against the Chinese so far because we are more fluent in English, this gap is quickly eroding. Also, as other forum writers have noted, we are required to be bilingual, thus we are not often strong in either language. The writer concludes by advising us to focus on speaking both languages properly.
Coming from a Peranakan family, I have never been strong in Mandarin. At home, only English is spoken – even with my grandparents. But on rare occasions when I do speak Chinese (usually at hawker centres) I try my best to do so without having to rely on English terms. When I don’t know the Mandarin term for something, I will ask a more knowledgeable colleague for help.
It’s increasingly disturbing that so many Chinese Singaporeans speak in a mix of English and Mandarin. It demonstrates a lack of depth in either language. More critically, as this trend shows no signs of abating, it indicates a general lack of interest in learning how to improve in either language – in short, a poor attitude.
It also becomes a vicious cycle. As more Chinese Singaporeans speak this way, others feel compelled to lapse into this common lingo to ‘blend in’ with the crowd. Those who speak proper English might stick out like a sore thumb, appearing to be ‘elite’. Why should this be the case?
On occasion, I do hear some Singaporeans speaking in perfect Mandarin, and think that is a beautiful thing. Of course, my next reaction is to check whether they’re really Singaporeans and not Chinese or Taiwanese nationals who’ve been in our country for a while! [Update: See this post on the decline of proper Mandarin.]
This goes beyond having ‘Speak Good English’ and ‘Hua Yu Cool’ (Mandarin is cool) campaigns. The Government obviously recognises the importance of mastering these global languages, but if citizens themselves don’t recognise the importance of this, Singapore will suffer in the long run.
Have you ever been in situations where a truly native English speaker (usually Caucasian) makes a presentation, followed by a local whose knowledge of the subject matter may be just as good, but whose communication skills (including language) is lacking? That is what we’re up against. Add China to our list of competitors, too. We can continue speaking in pidgin English and Mandarin, while the rest of the world overtakes us.
The full letter has been reproduced below, in case non-subscribers are unable to access it.
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
Update: This post has been noticed by Intelligent Singaporean.