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English Spoke


 

English As She Is Spoke

by Kenneth Lyen

I watch CNN news every day. What fascinates me most, is not so much the news, although that’s the raison d’etre for watching, but rather the myriad of accents captured on screen.

Yes, they are all speaking English, but the variety of accents is stunning. Sometimes I can’t understand what is being said. I play a game and close my eyes, just listening to the voice, and challenge myself to guess the country of origin of the speaker. The newscaster may have an Australian drawl, the reporter may have an Indian lilt, the interviewees could have a sing-song Hong Kong cadence, or a gruff middle eastern voice. It is quite amusing to watch someone from Shanghai or Tokyo speaking American English fused with Chinese English or Japanese English. But the predominant accent is American. Well, CNN is an American network after all.

Well, what about our local Singapore news channel? You might expect to hear a Singapore accent, wouldn’t you? But I hear mostly American accents spoken by the newscasters. This is quite a change from the past, when a British accent was preferred, as we were once a British colony.

American English has conquered the world!

I discovered another amazing thing. I found that I can switch from one accent to another depending on who I’m talking to. If I’m with someone who speaks with a Singapore English accent or Singlish, I will do likewise. If I’m with an upper crust Britisher, I would put on my best Queen’s lah dee dah English. And if I’m with an American, I will speak gee, there you go again American. All this is done automatically, and I don’t have to think twice in switching modes. I’m a bit of a speech chameleon. Perhaps I could try my hand at telephone sales!

Unfortunately, the Singapore Government has banned Singlish. How can a Government ban a way of speaking, especially when spoken by much of the population? Quite easily. Nobody is allowed to broadcast Singlish on radio or television, and school children are not allowed to speak it. But why? You may ask. With falling standards of spoken English, our Government felt that Singlish will not be understood by the rest of the world, and will disadvantage us. When my British and American friends heard this they were totally flabbergasted. They asked me, "How paternalistic can a Government ever get?" I remained silent, chewing mental gum. (Chewing physical gum is banned).

Language is meant for communication. If one can communicate better with Singlish, especially to one’s family and friends, then surely it is better to use Singlish for better understanding. Most of us can automatically switch to a Singlish mode. However, when communicating with overseas clients, we can press a different switch inside our brains, and out pops an appropriate accent.

Let me test you. Here’s an example of Singlish. I’m sure you will have no difficulty understanding me: "Can on the TV, lah!" (If you are a Singapore censor reading this, the Singlish message will self-destruct in a few seconds).