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Navigating Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner

While several of my exchange student friends have noted that one of their main reasons for choosing Singapore as their study abroad destination is that they would not have to face a language barrier, they also report that the reality is far from their expectations. In their defense, it is true that English is Singapore’s language of education, and as is the case in many other countries around the world, the language of law and commerce. However, Singaporean Colloquial English, or Singlish for short, is no doubt a challenge for English speakers foreign to Singaporean life.

A local classmate described Singlish as economical, efficient, and expressive. And that line of sentiment seems to be dominant among local Singaporeans. I find it similar to how in America, there are prevalent metalinguistic discourses surrounding nonstandard English varieties, such as Southerner speech being slow and drawn out, and African American Vernacular English being rough and to-the-point. While such characterizations are, linguistically speaking, largely unfounded and meaningless, people nevertheless seem very eager to imbue fun and quirky (but also often prejudiced) qualities to what are otherwise logically coherent and highly structured languages.

At the same time, it would be a lie if I said I found Singlish uninteresting. Several of my native Singlish-speaker friends have been very excited to teach me some unique features of Singlish, such as the use of sentence-final emotive particles (“lah”, “meh”, “sia”), reduplications (“think think”, “boy boy”), and uninverted wh-questions (“what is the answer to this problem is what?”). I’ve also found that some other features of Singlish might appear more familiar to younger Americans such as copula absence (“she (is) at work”, “you (are) weird”) and optional marking of plurality (“it costs ten dollar(s)”), as these structures are frequently seen in texting and internet slang.

Notes from a student-led presentation on Singlish for exchange students.

But I don’t really mean to go into the structural details of Singlish here. Rather, I want to reflect more on the different ways in which I have personally been trying to navigate Singlish as an English-speaking foreigner.

The most glaring difficulty that I continue to face since arriving here is getting used to an accent that I am not accustomed to. For me, this means being more attentive both to the spoken sound of Singlish and to my own use of Standard American English. It means learning common Singlish words and phrases such as “tapao” (Chinese phrase meaning “take-out”) and becoming familiar with syllable-timing (Singlish is a syllable-timed language, which means that each syllable takes about the same time to articulate. On the other hand, Standard American English is stress-timed) and also, funnily enough, British pronunciation and spelling (given Singapore’s colonial history).

If I pronounce something wrong (yet another valuable lesson I learned: pronunciation standards are subjective even regarding the “same” language), I often get feedback where the person I’m talking to says the word they think I am saying back to me with emphasis on the part that was unintelligible to them to make sure that we’re on the same page. Talking with native Singaporeans has made me appreciate the amount of work they put in for communicating with foreigners. For example, my native Singaporean friends were, at the beginning, very conscious of using sentence-final emotive particles (which are as common and indispensable as the use “lol” or “omg” in texting) when I would enter into their conversations. Similarly, vendors are often seen keeping pen and paper nearby so that they can communicate in writing if speech should fail.

It’s an obvious fact that communication is a two-sided effort, but as a foreigner with relative privilege, I am often not the one who bears the bulk of that burden when talking with local Singaporeans who may be having as much of a difficulty understanding me, as I have understanding them. I struggle with the part of me that feels entitled to my accent on the pretense of it being the “standard” or the “norm.” Upon reflecting on my experiences, I am learning to be more mindful of the fact that, in our globalized world, English is multiple – both in its form and its social dynamics – and they are all valid in their own right.

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