Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Of The Good Singlish Campaign And Wayan's Story

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I read three comments from three different people in the Straits Times that prompted me to write this post. The gist of each:
  • Singlish is not bad English
  • Retaining Singlish means preserving culture
  • Having a neutral accent is important.
Whether or not Singlish equates to broken English at this point in time is a question I dare not ask nor try to answer. The second point is difficult to dispute, but what kind of culture is being referred to must be related to the first point. I mean, does anyone want to promote a culture of broken English? The third point is undeniably important if clarity with non-Singaporean English speakers is desired, but like many other things in this world, there is a huge gap between theory and practice.

The Good English Movement

Perhaps everyone is better off focusing on reaping lasting benefits from the Good English Movement. What if ten years from now Singlish is seen as an example of excellent English for the rest of Asia to follow? What if there was no doubt as to whether or not Singlish was equivalent to bad English? These questions presuppose that the definition of Singlish can be dynamic, that it evolves over time and does not necessarily always have to be what it used to during the launch of the campaign in the year 2000. Who knows if this can be a by-product of the movement? Anyway, I believe that Singaporeans have more to win than lose with the success of the campaign.

I also believe that adopting a neutral accent should be a major focus of the campaign. I found out much later, when I had almost completed this post, that this sentiment is somehow stated differently as part of the movement's main aims:
The central message of the movement is to get Singaporeans to:

1. Speak in Standard English so as to be understood by all English speakers in this globalised and highly-interconnected world.

2. Pay attention to accurate pronunciation. However, this is not about acquiring a new foreign accent.
I have been staying in Singapore for almost two years now and I have been able to adjust to the accent, but every so often I'd wish the person I was talking to would slow down and enunciate all the syllables. I will admit I had a bit of difficult time understanding what people were saying (in English) during my first few weeks here in the Merlion City.

Wayan's Story

Take the case of Wayan, a Balinese I have yet to meet face to face. Now this isn't Pak Wayan, the artist who sold me a Balinese painting. I only know about him through his brother, Suwaste, who I met in my trip to Bali. He called me on my mobile yesterday, introduced himself and expressed his desire to meet up with me. The guy’s English was far from perfect but I perfectly understood what he was saying. Despite obvious grammatical errors and his apparent shortage of vocabulary, he pronounced each syllable clearly using a neutral accent.

"Sorry, my English not very good," Wayan admits.

Wayan shared with me a few of his misadventures. On that first conversation, he told me his superior was constantly angry with him and he’d have his daily ration of the F word from him. It was so bad he said that he’d often had to excuse himself so he could cry in the toilet.

Now let me digress a little by saying that anyone who’s been in Bali knows how kind and friendly the Balinese people are. Someone pouring his heart out to a stranger may seem a little odd. But a week in the little paradise of an island is enough for one to have a bit of understanding about their culture and not only observe but also experience firsthand their trusting nature. Here, it seemed like the prompt assessment and the even quicker endorsement of an older brother was sufficient for Wayan to open up to a stranger. Or maybe he was just a bit desperate and needed another human being to talk to?

His superior’s tongue-lashing, insults and curses were not just a case of bad mood, waking up at the wrong side of the bed or a quarrel with the girlfriend though. Often times, it was due to customer complaints about Wayan not being able to understand what they were saying.

"The English here, very difficult to understand," Wayan complains.

"That's because you're not yet used to the accent," I countered. "Give it a little more time."

During the course of the conversation, I often had to say "Sorry?" or "Pardon?" so Wayan would repeat what he just said. But it wasn’t because his English or his manner of speaking was so incomprehensible; the connection was just bad.

Because of the communication gap, the clear message of the daily dose of F word he received, and one other incident to form a strikeout, Wayan has already come up with a conclusion about Singaporeans.

"One day I talk to someone I meet and so we talk and talk that day," Wayan says. "The next day we meet again and I try to talk with him but he don't talk, like we never talk before."

"The people here not very friendly," Wayan concludes.

Final Encounters

"Thanks to all these people who use grammatically incorrect English, I have a job," quips the highly animated Mr. X, who gives lectures to local companies to promote good English.

"But having worked here all these years, I can't help but be influenced by Singlish," he narrates. "I was riding a cab in the U.S. once when the driver asked me if he could drop me off in front of a building. My reply was 'Can, can!' To which the driver, obviously irritated, replied, 'What? What can? What do you mean can?'"

I must confess that I myself have been influenced. It can be endearing actually -- Singlish, as long as we don't end up speaking ungrammatical or incomprehensible English. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the launch of the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 says:
If Singlish were only "a smattering of Chinese and Malay words", there would be no problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Singlish uses Chinese syntax and Singlish speakers often use literal translations of Chinese phrases. This means that the sentences are not only ungrammatical and truncated but often incomprehensible, especially to foreigners. Classic examples would be: "You got money, sure can buy one." Or, "This is my one" derived from "zhe shi wo de".
I am reminded of an early blunder I made.

"Please stop dumping files to the server so we can isolate the problem," I requested.

"Yah lah! We stop." came the reply.

The trouble was I took that to mean they were going to stop. When I called a few minutes later to confirm if their team had already stopped dumping files, I was in for a surprise.

"Yah lah. Spoke to you a while ago ah. Stop already, I told you mah."

Already aware we were having problems at our end, they were in fact being proactive and had already stopped dumping files prior to my call. I should have taken the cue from the enthusiastic "Yah lah!" that I was greeted with earlier.

My conversation woes at work have constantly diminished over the months as I've learned to listen better and have become more adept at interpreting what is being said based on key words. I still make occasional mistakes but have learned to clarify before jumping to conclusions.

A quote from Robin Sharma keeps echoing in my head every now and then: "Clarity precedes success".

I guess the same could be said as to why the movement makes perfect sense.

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At September 9, 2008 at 5:29 PM , Blogger Agagooga said...

Maybe my Singlish sucks, but I'd also take:

"Yah lah! We stop."

to mean "Yeah, we're going to stop"

In Singlish, the meaning "Yeah, we've stopped already" would be conveyed by the following:

"Yah lah! We stop liao."

At September 10, 2008 at 7:20 PM , Blogger Bao Ren said...

Maybe the guy meant 'Yah lah! We stopped.'


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