How do you identify a Singaporean easily when you’re overseas? You’d usually get a feeling of home when you hear the use of Singlish when you come across another Singaporean in a foreign country. Indeed, one of the markers that most Singaporean can identify with (other than the tasty affordable chicken rice) is Singlish and the way we speak.  

Singlish is the product of the multicultural society we live in. After independence, the pioneering leaders decided that English should be the common language amongst the different races. Eventually the different ethnic groups started infusing English with a mix of dialect, and other words from Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. (Read more about how Singlish is described on BBC here.)  

Linguistic inferiority on the rise?

One linguistic expert has made an observation that more Singaporeans are starting to speak with a “fake” accent. It could be observed to be a strange mix of different foreign accents, in order to sound less Singaporean. A probable cause to this phenomenon is linguistic inferiority, where the speaker feels that their own speech is less than ideal, so he would adopt someone else’s accent to be “correct”.

While Singlish definitely has a unifying effect, it can also become a social marker in some ways. It is also believed that the Speak Good English Movement campaigns may also have reinforced the notion that Singaporeans speak poor English.

What about code-switching?

A mindset that Singlish is bad may slowly erode the sense of identity that one has with Singapore. What is important for us to stay relevant in the global setting, as well as being relatable to others in the everyday informal setting, is to hone the ability to code-switch. Being able to discern when it is appropriate to use standard English or Singlish.

The director of British Council opined that standard English should be appropriately used in formal settings, especially when there are non-locals involved. However, it should not come at the expense of Singlish as a skill, which is enriching the cultural diversity that we have here. Teachers and parents can play a role in teaching children how to read situations and be comfortable with switching between both types of speaking.

In a ethnic study done in 2016, it was found that we are also sentimental about ethnic language, and being able to speak our mother tongue (Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil) is significant in identifying our cultural heritage. This study also reported that respondents acknowledged that having a common language – English – binds us together across ethnicities as Singaporeans.  

As we develop as a society, there is a strong need for cultural and identity markers to allow people to form meaningful relationships. What other better way than to be able to understand one another and laugh at relatable videos like this one:


Questions for further personal evaluation:

  1. Do you think it is a privilege to be able to code-switch from standard English to Singlish? How so?
  2. How can we feel more secure about our unique way of speaking?

Useful vocabulary:

  1. ‘paramount’: more important than anything else; supreme
  2. ‘paragon’: a person or thing viewed as a model of excellence
  3. ‘intractable’: hard to control or deal with
  4. ‘debased’: reduced in quality or value

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Washington Post: Speaking the same language is important in national identity for other countries too.

“Pew’s data shows that beliefs about national identity have a partisan split. Eighty-three percent of Republicans say that being able to speak English is very important to being truly American, 22 percentage points higher than Democrats. There are similar splits regarding the importance of American customs and Christianity, too, though both Republicans and Democrats attach relatively low importance to being born in the United States.

This partisan link is also important across Europe, where respondents with positive views of anti-establishment parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and France’s National Front were found to attach a higher level of importance to national customs in defining identity. There were also similar partisan splits in Canada and Australia (though information for Japan was not available).”

  1. Medium: Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that language plays a role in how people think, and this was depicted in the movie ‘Arrival’.

“This hypothesis stands for the fact that language plays a very significant role in people’s lives because it is not just a way to communicate, but it has an influence on people’s behavior and their way of the thinking (Hussein). In other words, people who speak differently tend to have different points of views about the world. The theory goes that the language, not only diction but also the syntax, does not just impact how people communicate with one another, but also how speakers of a language, and polyglots by extension visualize and interact with the world on a basic level. This inextricable relationship between language and worldview is the underlying concern not just of linguists, but storytellers, particularly the recent film ‘Arrival’.”

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