Should you be speaking Singlish to your child?

Posted on03/11/2020

“Auntie, want to go makan? I go chope seat, you go order first lah!” Daily life in Singapore is so steeped in Singlish that it is nearly impossible to avoid it. Youngsters address their elders...

This article was originally published in The Asian Parent. Download it as a PDF here.
“Auntie, want to go makan? I go chope seat, you go order first lah!”

Daily life in Singapore is so steeped in Singlish that it is nearly impossible to avoid it. Youngsters address their elders as Auntie or Uncle. Kids complain about being very sian when they are bored. We pull out our lahs and sprinkle them liberally into our conversations, a multitool that can be modified for any situation.

Parents and caregivers are important role models in a child's language acquisition during their formative years. Is Singlish just an innocent Singaporean quirk, or is it teaching our future generations to speak in broken English?

Teach Children Singlish: Yes or No?

Singlish is a mish-mash of English and regional Southeast Asian languages. Our local lingo is a fascinating hybrid language that is scrutinised by linguists all over the world. Nonetheless, it can be hard for foreigners to understand us at times, especially when we start slinging our slang around, as seen in our beloved Phua Chu Kang or Under One Roof sitcoms.

In the local community, we have a love-hate relationship with Singlish. While some treasure our homegrown patois as an undeniable part of our national identity, others reject it as an ungrammatical and fractured mess. With our government tending towards the latter opinion, they started the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to rid Singaporeans of Singlish.

In recent years, the official stance has softened, with their website stating that “The Speak Good English Movement recognises the existence of Singlish as a cultural marker for many Singaporeans. We aim to help those who speak only Singlish, and those who think Singlish is English, to speak Standard English.”

Teach Children Singlish: Pros and Cons

Let us take a look at one of the main cons of speaking Singlish: The ‘sloppy’ English. Singlish is often described as efficient – but in paring down our words, Singaporeans can be viewed as speaking in grammatically-incorrect English.

This may become a bad habit, even when one is making an effort to speak in Standard English. And woe betide you if you let slip in a business or international environment – it can invite derision, criticism and may even be seen as rude.

Fortunately for us, Singaporeans are well-regarded in the international community and as such, Singlish is viewed with benign bemusement rather than with contempt. Ang moh visitors to our country will gamely try their hand at speaking Singlish, usually resulting in jollity and a new Singaporean friend.

In 2016, Oxford English Dictionary joined the party with the inclusion of 19 Singlish words to its lexicon. Now, we can look up the definition of sabo king within its hallowed pages.

But wait, there is more good news for Singlish! With its casual bluntness and Asian loanwords, Singlish unites us as fellow Singaporeans and brings an easy intimacy to conversations. When young children are developing their socialisation skills, Singlish is a marker that identifies the speaker as a local buddy and not an atas outsider.

A shared vernacular is a major signifier of a common background and could help children build a rapport with each other. This will continue into adulthood, where an informal language can promote a more relaxed atmosphere. It is especially useful for young men as they enter NS, where Singlish is the de facto language for communication.

When travelling overseas, Singlish is how we identify a fellow countryman, with whom we will feel an instant bond upon hearing a familiar tongue so far from home.

Still a huge part of our culture

Even though Singaporeans generally have the perception that Singlish is ‘bad’ English, it is still a beloved cultural idiosyncrasy; a cherished local patter that is uniquely Singaporean. Don’t leave Singlish behind to become a quaint footnote in our history lessons.

Importantly, help your child find a good balance between Singlish and Standard English, as both have its usefulness in different situations and environments. Proficiency and fluency in both vernaculars will enable your child to codeswitch with ease between Singlish and Standard English, depending on the context.

In conclusion, Singlish has its merits. With the informal and familiar vibe that Singlish brings to any interaction, your child will find it easier to connect with their Singaporean peers both now and later in life.


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