Thursday, September 27, 2007

Singaporeans really do speak English

I was surprised this summer to discover how difficult it was convincing people that Singaporeans speak English. And when I say they speak English, I don't mean in the way that you could go to say, Germany, and find that people there speak English. I mean they speak English in the same way that you go to the United States and people speak English. Yes, other languages are spoken - in some parts more than in others - just like in the U.S. And that is as should be - here, and in the U.S. too (I've got a bit of a gripe against people who think it's wrong that more and more people in the U.S. speak Spanish). But English is the primary operating language.

I've done a little observing the past few days of signs and conversations. While it's not uncommon to hear languages other than English spoken here, every sign I saw was in English. Occasionally it was also in another language, but if you don't speak English here, you'd have a tough time. I often encounter the clerk speaking Mandarin to the person in front of me, then switching to English for my sake. I even saw a young Indian girl speaking Mandarin with the older gentleman before me yesterday which I thought was unusual. She must have learned it in school.

I've heard from Singaporean friends that the government has gone through phases regarding what it encourages its citizens to speak. So depending on the generation, there are some who speak primarily Mandarin or some other Chinese dialect. Case in point - the elderly lady who helped me tonight at McDonald's. It became clear to me that we would have been better off speaking Mandarin, but my McDonald's vocabulary is rusty. At other times, people have been encouraged only to speak English. Now I believe the trend is to remain bilingual, or even trilingual if possible.

I feel like this is the 10th post I've written about language here. I hope I've made it clear - no, I'm not keeping up my Mandarin here (though I am going to brush up on my fast food vocab) and, aside from different accents, we're all speaking English.

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