The 4 myths of Singlish

The 4 myths of Singlish

Monday, 30 May 2016

by Luke Lu

SINGLISH has made the news, again.

First, a wave of excitement as some words were included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Then, Singaporean literary critic and poet Gwee Li Sui wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times on the virtues of Singlish, prompting the press secretary of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to write in to say that Dr Gwee had made light of government’s efforts to promote the mastery of Standard English.

What was interesting to me as a sociolinguist, was seeing how the public discourse on Singlish continues to reflect some misconceptions of the language.

To be sure, I am not promoting Singlish at the expense of Standard English. What I am about to write is nothing new, and has been established within academia over the last two decades. Still, these following myths persist.


Myth #1 “Singlish is bad English”

This is, perhaps, one of the biggest bugbears of Singaporean linguists. There is now a large body of research that demonstrates how Singlish exists with its own rules for organising words and sounds.

Linguistics professor Lionel Wee of the National University of Singapore, for instance, has done research to show that there are systematic ways in which we use particles like “lah”, “leh” and “lor”, each with a different meaning.

Singlish is not simply ‘broken’ English, but a distinguishable variety borne from contact amongst members of Singapore’s multicultural/lingual environment.

Interestingly, sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta, who developed a strong research interest in Singlish during her 21 years as an academic in Singapore, suggests that one of the birthplaces of Singlish could have been the playgrounds of Raffles Institution (one of the first schools in Singapore) where boys of different ethnicities would mix and interact.

That Singlish is a language variety in its own right also means that like any language, it consists of a repertoire or collection of words and phrases that speakers choose to deploy when communicating. Consequently, linguists like Lubna Alsagoff – an associate dean at the National Institute of Education – argue that the division between Standard English and Singlish is not a definitive line in actual usage, but a continuum that speakers often shift to and from.

 Myth #2 “Singlish is a hindrance to learning Standard English”

This is a myth that has been repeated ad nauseam without any actual linguistic evidence.

Not unique to Singlish, it is a common accusation that the presence of a low prestige variety of a language necessarily hinders the learning of the high prestige variety.

In fact, there are studies, such as in bi-dialectal classroom education, that show how teaching the use of specific styles of language for appropriate contexts can often be successful.

The Ministry of Education already uses this framework themselves through the teaching of “Text Types”, albeit not for Singlish. Students are currently exposed to different types of texts such as official letters, advertisements and expository essays.

They are taught to use certain styles of writing and speaking for different audiences, purposes and situations. In a way, Singlish is just one of the many styles that are available for us to choose from in daily communication. It can be used in the teaching of Text Types to create a greater awareness of the words and phrases that are different from Standard English and only acceptable in certain contexts.

Myth #3 “Only educated people can code-switch successfully”

It is rather simplistic to assume that individuals who have lower proficiencies in English are necessarily unable to distinguish the standard form and Singlish as separate ways of speaking.

Studies do often reveal that such users do know and can adapt their more limited repertoires to suit the appropriate context.

Research by linguists Peter Tan and Daniel Tan involving mainstream secondary school pupils here shows that students in Singapore do have a sense of when and where Singlish is acceptable. These students also have a clear notion of the importance and value of Standard English.

For lower proficiency users of English, the bigger problem is that they have less access to the repertoire of words and phrases at the Standard English end of the continuum.

 Myth #4 “Singlish cannot be understood by foreigners”

Again, there is no evidence to suggest that Singlish and Standard English are always mutually unintelligible. This is especially when we take into account the interactional context in which any communication must occur. That is, we derive meaning from an utterance by relating it to the situation that we are in, what we are talking about, and who we are talking to.

Also, users will tend to deploy a speech style closer to the standard form when interacting with individuals who are not local (see first and third Myths about shifting along a continuum between styles).

Yes, there are words like kiasustylo-milo etc, that are opaque to foreigners, but these are culture-specific lexicon that even standard forms of English have.

Think of lorry (British) vs truck (American), field (British) vs paddock (Australian), or idiomatic expressions like “a kettle of fish”.

Pronunciation and accent are also not barriers unique to Singlish. Just as Singaporeans might want to order “raid wine”, the Scots live in their “hooses” and an Australian might wish you “a good die”.

In terms of syntax, or what the layperson might know as grammar, it is a baseless claim that Singlish cannot be understood by users of other Englishes.

Just as Singaporeans might want to order “raid wine”, the Scots live in their “hooses” and an Australian might wish you “a good die”.

It is important that our understanding of Singlish be substantiated by actual research and careful study, not ideological biases. This is especially when there are real consequences for learners. There is no need to denigrate Singlish if the goal is to raise the level of Standard English used by Singaporeans. Indeed, as many linguists today would agree, Singlish might even be used as a resource to teach the standard form.

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