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by Kenneth Lyen

In Asia, it is quite common for parents to talk to their children in two languages, such as an Asian language or dialect and English. In addition, caregivers such as grandparents and babysitters may speak one language or dialect and the parents another. This may lead to some initial confusion as the child may learn that the English word “car” is referred to by another sound in Chinese. Children exposed to a bilingual environment will initially mix up worlds from two languages in a single sentence. This is known as code switching. It is a temporary phenomenon. Research has shown that while children who are spoken to in two languages may not initially acquire as wide a vocabulary in any one language compared to those spoken to in one language, there are no long-term problems. In fact, bilingual children have and advantage in that they are fluent in two languages. Children pick up languages best when they are young. Therefore, to raise an effectively bilingual child, the languages should best be established within the first six years. Since children learn languages through listening and understanding, it is a distinct advantage if both parents are bilingual or if one parent is so. In this way, the child can be exposed to two different languages at home at an early age. To avoid confusing the child, the different languages should be kept separate. Do not use two languages in one conversation and certainly not in the same sentence. You may want to adopt the one-parent-one-language strategy. This means that one parent will consistently speak to the child in one language and the other parent in another. Buying books, music and videotapes in the languages you wish your child to develop will help her be immersed in those languages.


“Singlish” is short for Singapore English. This is a modification of English incorporating fragments of several Asian and Southeast Asian dialects and their syntax. For example, “don’t kachao me, otherwise cannot go gai gai” means “do not disturb me, otherwise I will not take you out”. It is difficult to prevent children from speaking Singlish because many of them learn to speak it with their friends. So long as they can switch to proper English when the occasion demands it, speaking Singlish is not considered a problem. On their part parents should use grammatical English when they speak to their children.

In Singapore there is a controversy over the use of Singlish in public broadcasting. The Singapore Government has in effect "outlawed" it. Performing artists and writers are outraged by this interference because they argue that Singlish is the mode of speech of ordinary Singaporeans. It reflects their thinking and emotions more closely. The Government, on the other hand, are worried that young Singaporeans will grow up speaking Singlish, and when overseas, might become a laughing stock at best, and at worst, simply incomprehensible. So far, the Government has the upper hand as Singlish is still largely suppressed in public broadcasting.

My own take is that language development is an organic thing, and that the diverse variations of spoken English enrich the language and our own culture. Language is a means of communication, and the more accurately we can communicate our thoughts and feelings, the better our society will become. Let nature take its course.