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The Science of English – Code Switching

 


by Karl Gan


Much has been said and made of the battle of words between Dr Gwee Li Sui and the Prime Minister’s office lately, incited by Dr Gwee’s op-ed piece in the New York Times where he champions the use of Singlish, discusses the Singapore government’s war on Singlish, and subtly hints at their failures to adapt to Singlish for the purposes of local appeal.

The Prime Minister’s office then replied, saying that “Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn and use standard English… [and] not everyone… can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English.”

Who is right in this war of words, and why is there a code to be switched?

According to the field of linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker is able to switch between two or more languages, or language varieties, effortlessly when speaking to others, while being able to replicate the authenticity of each language or language variety.

Basically, I can speak Singlish one second to, for example, someone at the hawker centre, and the next second, take a call from London and speak to that person in perfect, grammatically- and syntactically-correct English.

In my experience, code-switching depends a lot on the environment the child is raised up in. A child with parents that speak a lot of dialect or mother tongue at home, will result in difficulties in grasping the English language. The reason for this is simple: language is something that is trained through familiarity. If a child is unfamiliar with the proper way English is supposed to be said, he or she will not grow up knowing English the right way.

So how do we fix this problem?

Of course, parents learning how to speak proper English is one thing. But an easier way, if the parent does not have this ability or finds it difficult, is to let you child watch TV and read more books.

            1) TV

That’s right, television. As a platform for trained actors and writers, English television will have a higher standard of language than what you’d encounter in daily life. Of course, you’d have to limit your child’s viewing and choose educational, good shows, but many shows such as “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader” or cartoons feature strong English speakers.

            2) Books

I always advocate children reading books. This goes beyond just textbooks. Children should read any books that interest him or her. Limiting him or her to only “educational” books dampens his creativity and imagination, and makes him or her associate language learning with boredom.

As a tutor, I have come across this problem of children interchangeably using Singlish and English many times, especially when my kids display two notable phenomena in class: “usage of Singlish words and colloquialisms”, and “structure of Singlish”. Here is some insight on the problem, and some tips on how to correct this problem.

Usage of Singlish Words & Colloquialisms

This is the easiest to correct, but again, it depends on the environment. Words like “lah”, “orh”, “loh”, are commonly emphasized as Singlish words. How about words like “blah” and “meh”? While seen commonly online, these are also colloquial terms, which means that they are used in everyday speech but should not be formally used in your child’s writing. Words such as “duh”, which is recognized by many English speakers and the Oxford dictionary, should not be used as it is considered colloquial as well.

Teachers of course, will constantly do their best to reinforce that these words should not be used in the examination setting. Parents should also tell their children there is a clear distinction between what you say in everyday life, and what you write or say in an examination condition.

Structure of Singlish

As Singlish is essentially a combination of English and multiple other languages and dialects that can be found in Singapore, the structure of the language is different from English.

For example, I once had a student who wrote, “I do this, can?”

Of course, the proper way to write it would be, “Can I do this?”

With its roots in Mandarin, as you can see, this results in students who speak Singlish a lot, placing the modal verb behind instead of in front.

To solve this, parents need to actively try to not combine languages in daily life. It is a habit of many parents to drop mother tongue phrases into their English sentences, which greatly harms the child’s ability to process the structure of pure English.

If the parent wants to communicate with a child, do it in one language only, and do it cleanly, with no other influences from other languages.

Since Singlish is essentially a combination of other languages, is this advice to not speak Singlish? No, but rather to keep it as it is: as another language altogether. By keeping in mind the Singlish language is not English as it should be applied in the exam or in formal situations, children will treat Singlish as separate from English and thus will be able to code switch with greater ability. It is just like how they would speak in English and their mother tongue separately, to people who may not understand their mother tongue.

That is the trick, and with this trick, code-switching would not be as major a worry as it has been.

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