Types of global English

Communication over here is something I’m finding much less straightforward than I thought it might be – apparently, there’s more to it than just memorising all the HSBC ads. Although I knew about Singlish, and was looking forward to finding out more about it, everything I’d read suggested that, in the kind of contexts I was going to find myself, what we laughingly call Standard English would be in use.

Of course, an idea this welcome can be hard to let go of, and it’s taken me a while to stop thinking that people are trying to speak the same language as me, just because they say they are. In most of my meetings so far there’s been a moment where I start to wonder if I’ve been passing out every few minutes, fugueing violently in a kind of delayed jetlag, consequently missing the information that would make the last few sentences comprehensible. My colleagues here are used to looking at me now in complete bewilderment as I try to make a link between sentences that come after one another but are otherwise utterly unconnected.

So I’m doing some homework. I bought a copy of “English in Singapore” (Ling & Brown, 2005), which is recommended by Anthea Fraser Gupta. (Brown, with Chia Boh Peng, considered whether Estuary English might be an alternative to RP as a teaching model: he’s published hugely, according to google, but so far this is my favourite).

For more references, Roles and Impact of English as a Global Language (Doms, 2003) seems useful, as does this summary from David Deterding (also from the English Language & Literature department at NIE). I’m looking out for English as a Global Language by David Crystal, mainly because I loved Stories of English. I might leave the SAAL for the time being.

This whole are of new Englishes is fascinating : having only encountered the idea in the context of emerging discourses online, discovering its relevance offline at first-hand can’t help but be eye-opening. Imagine that, offline life being fascinating.

Legitimising these new forms of English is a direct challenge to the ethos of the Speak Good English movement, which is either a well-meaning attempt to make sure people from Singapore can be understood outside the immediate area, or “a triumph of the relentless, hegemonic forces of globalization”. Regardless of whether it’s a reactionary echo of colonial orientalism, or a practical effort to help Singaporeans continue to take over the world, what’s interesting to me is that the kinds of speech it identifies as not being “good English” aren’t the bits that cause me such confusion. There are lots of kinds of Singapore English, and I’m fine with Singapore Colloquial English, or at least, I understand why I don’t understand it. My confusion comes from Standard Singapore English. People saying “lah” to intensify something is easy to understand – it’s being kindly asked to discuss on something all the time that gets to me. I don’t know what is that.

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