Anything wrong with broken English?

What’s the harm in speaking or writing in ineloquent English? I’ve heard rumors from across the border that Singaporeans are very lax about their use of both English  and Mandarin and I can see that it doesn’t bother them much either. I often tell my students not to let the idea of the fear of making mistakes bother them too much because the Fear itself stifles language progress. Just do it, as the saying goes.

But now I’ve gained a different perspective : the comfort zone using colloquialism can be too close for comfort. The biggest difference I see between Singaporeans and Malaysians in the use of English is that Singaporeans aren’t bothered at all about their Singlish while the average Chinese-learner of English in Malaysia, is. For the Singaporeans, their ears are so tuned to their own slang and pidgin use that they don’t sense anything peculiarly strange in the way they are expressing meaning or context.

It’s a bit of a vicious circle. Because they are comfortable with themselves, they tune out to other ways of expression in English. In tuning out, they cannot self-correct nor notice better ways of expressing thinking. They simply ignore the bits that make up the atoms because everyone else talks and writes that way.

As a believer in diversity I am both impressed and tickled by Singaporeans’ lackadaisical attitude towards standard English or Chinese. You can see errors in meaning and expression all over on signboards, even on school compounds. But the way they have chosen to express their unique culture through language is no different from how Penang people mould their own variant of Hokkien in the image of themselves. So, what’s the harm?

First of all, Penang is not planning to build its entire economy on the back of Hokkien as the medium of conmmunication, trade and education. Singapore, however, has to. From a perspective of an ESL tutor of Chinese learners of English just across the border I can say this with confidence that Singaporeans have a lot more to lose than Malaysians if they become comfortable with their use of Singlish. Language is an expression of thinking and the expression of thinking can be limited by the limitations of the language vehicle chosen for the purpose of cognitive processing and verbal-linguistics expression.

Unlike Malaysia, Singapore’s economy is driven almost completely on Soft-skills and Higher-Order Thinking. It’s not to say that higher-order thinking is insignificant for Malaysians to adopt but unlike Singapore, we have a lot more resources and avenues to generate a diverse range of  economic spin-offs. By being comfortable with their use of English (or Mandarin) they are limiting and dulling their own cognitive and thinking functions.

In any society when you take Mother Tongue use as a non-changing variable, you can distinguish between the better and the lesser user of language. The better users of language, those who are more eloquent, tend to learn better and faster because they have ADDITIONAL channels of learning open to them on top of the learning acquired through experiential and sensory input.

Singaporeans are taking the lower denominations of both English and Mandarin and mashing them up into a new language of expression. That is fine as long as Singaporeans are contented with being compared to the lowest denominators in both English-speaking and Chinese-speaking societies. But this is a very dangerous comfort zone to be because it is much easier for an expert speaker of a Mother Tongue, say, Chinese, to transfer their cognitive skills, learning habits  and knowledge over to the second language, say, English, than it is for a bilingual person to upgrade their cognitive thinking, learning habits and knowledge to that of an educated, expert native-speaker.  Once a non-native speaker of English who is highly literate and eloquent in their own Mother Tongue acquires near-native like fluency in English (which can be achieved in as little as 3-5 years), they now have an advantage over a Singaporean.

Take me, for instance. I have chosen English as my main language of thinking and thus I have to keep upping my ante to be able to read, think, write and speak at the level of an educated professional native speaker of English. Should I need to acquire Mandarin as a second-language, I can transfer all my scaffolding, learning habits and cognitive skills into the learning, implant myself into an environment where I can model the language use of educated, professional native users of Mandarin and within 3-5 years be able to speak, think and communicate at the level of an educated speaker of Mandarin. Writing, on the other hand, might be a little tricky. Metaphors and other writing nuances in style and expression tend to cancel each other out in creative writing. It is a challenge for me already to write in Bahasa Malaysia as there are writing expressions that are simply not transferable because of the cultural context the use of the tools are framed in.

As a learner of Mandarin as a second-language, I would end up being able to express myself equally as well as an average user of Mandarin with the exception that I also have the higher-order thinking and confidence carried over from my standing as a speaker of English, a skill the average user of Mandarin may not have.

I can see already how my Du-Zhong or Chinese-school students will end up having an advantage over Singaporeans just like how the Chinese in China will have that same advantage. Demographics and size do matter. 30% of Malaysians or 1% of Chinese who can read, write and think at my level can outnumber the entire nation state, rendering their competitive edge in English from premium to nothing. Second, educated Malaysians who speak and write good English are Chinese or Malay who can read, write and speak better in Mandarin OR Bahasa which makes them more effective as professionals.

What this means is that, if Singaporeans limit their use of language by comparing themselves to the lower denominations of neighboring countries, they are shortchanging themselves. An average Singaporean university graduate compares themselves to the average Malaysian or Chinese or Vietnamese instead of the average, EDUCATED, MIDDLE-CLASS, URBAN Malaysian, Chinese or Vietnamese. Singaporeans take their middle-class living, standard of education and their urban status for granted and so compare themselves to their neighbors in general, neighbors who struggle with geography and other variables to try and make all things equal.

If Singaporeans were to take a step back for a moment and compare apple to apple, say…..a person coming from an EDUCATED, MIDDLE-CLASS, URBAN family in Bangsar or Subang Jaya instead of one from Melaka or Johor, they would start to worry.

This isn’t a Singapore-bashing post, it’s an empathetic post about the crossroads that nation city is in. If you’ve not noticed, there’s a funny trend happening in our evolution in this 21st century : Trends switch every 3-5 years, not every few decades. Every 3-5 years a nation that is ready can leapfrog on the next trend and ride it, rendering decades or centuries of backwardness insignificant.

The same is happening on a personal level. It used to be true that it takes decades to accumulate great amounts of wealth but that is not true anymore. A person who is emotionally, spiritually and mentally (cognitive knowledge wise) ready can become a millionaire in under a year. A person can heal from a painful death or a divorce in very little time as well. Of course it is a much simpler level on a personal level than it is on a state level but it is hardly impossible that a nation can quietly prepare itself and then skyrocket to great heights by timing their ascension.

The only variable deciding whether or not an individual or a state can leapfrog is the level of awareness and understanding of the matter that acts as a scaffolding. In order to stay ahead, Singapore’s only hope is that Malaysia and other neighboring countries stay unaware and confused, giving them some space to plan their leap ahead. However, should Malaysia or any neighboring country time their ascension simultaneously, the competitive edge would be over.

Singapore has a lot going for them but they’re in a harder spot because of what their economic fundamentals are built on. Malaysia can get away with not being first class in everything, (not saying that like it’s a good thing) but Singapore can’t. Their economy would collapse overnight if they lived the way I do in Penang.

There’s nothing wrong with broken English as long as you’re not planning your economic activities around it. But people like my students, are. That is why they are very cautious over how they are going to model language and acquire learning. They are not taking anything for granted. They are working equally as hard on their Mandarin as they are in their Bahasa and their English.


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Filed under Danger School, ESL in Asia

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