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Speaking good English

Thanks to my parents' strict policing of my language proficiency as a child, I find it easy now to code-switch

I think most kids born in the 1980s would concur that back in the day, there was little that was more exciting than the rare purchase of new technology.

Unlike the digitally savvy world we live in today, hitting the birthday jackpot two decades ago meant unwrapping your first pager or, better yet, a brand new Walkman player - which you then cherished for the next five years.

For me, though, it is neither my first Discman nor DVD player that remains a standout memory.

Instead, it was the day my family bought our first cordless telephone. It might seem bizarre to kids today, but in the days of yore - and before the advent of the ubiquitous mobile phone - telephones were contraptions in the living or dining room that were attached to the keypad by a cord.

Most families had only one communal phone and, more often than not, it was situated in an equally communal spot - meaning parents were able to eavesdrop on their kids' conversations.

Growing up, that meant I talked on the phone with schoolmates or friends in the open and, in the case of my family, in perfect English.

My parents - who were both brought up in India and educated in British-English medium schools - were, not surprisingly, very confused by Singlish when they first arrived in Singapore.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

They quickly saw it for what it was - a native colloquial tongue - but remained cautious about us picking it up in school, concerned that my sister and I would not be understood should our family eventually move back to India.

What that meant was that all through my adolescent years, my grasp of the English language was tightly monitored, whether it was conversations with friends, classmates or just random strangers. Correct grammar was a must. Slang was forbidden. Even incorrect pronunciation of words was pounced upon.

Of course, being a child who was eager to fit in, I quickly learnt the art of code-switching.

In school and around friends, my sister and I would learn new Singlish words and how to use them in appropriate situations.

Singlish became a tongue for us to practise in secret - with hawkers and school-bus drivers - and always away from our parents.

Still, there was the problem of the communal telephone.

Friends who called us at home would giggle at how "posh" we suddenly sounded. No "lahs" or "mehs" were heard. In their place were perfect P's, Q's, welcomes and thank-yous.

Eventually, realising that we could comfortably code-switch, my parents lifted their vice-like grip on our English proficiency, no thanks to the cordless phone, which finally afforded us the privilege of private conversations.

Over time, they, too, began asking for teh tarik and kopi instead of just tea and coffee.

Twenty-six years after moving to Singapore, words such as "chope" and "kiasu" are part of their vocabulary too.

Looking back, I consider myself lucky.

Despite how draconian it seemed at the time, my parents encouraging me to pick up standard English as a child set the foundation for the career I have now, one which requires mastery of the language.

More importantly, it has allowed me to communicate comfortably and professionally in the medium, wherever I may be in the world.

Still, the recent furore about Singlish signs on the new Tower Transit buses had me thinking about the importance of Singlish.

The collection of signs on the new three-door buses features phrases such as "Here got priority seats!", "Here cannot go in!" and "Here can charge phone!". These lines are followed by text in standard English.

Critics of Singlish - like my parents were back in the day - see the signs as a deterrent to learning standard English and an impediment to speaking the language fluently.

For many Singaporeans, English is also not the language spoken most frequently at home, meaning picking up correct grammar and pronunciation requires additional work, which can be marred by the constant use of Singlish.

Often, it is also said only those who can comfortably code-switch will see the beauty of Singlish, seeing as they have no issues switching from colloquial speech to a standard one when the situation calls for it.

Those who cannot code-switch as comfortably may be considered less educated - their speech seeming cringeworthy when used in professional settings.

And perhaps this is true. It may seem biased to wax lyrical about Singlish when you have had the privilege of learning English in its standard form.

To me, though, Singlish is more than just a tongue or a jumble of Mandarin syntax and Malay and Tamil slang.

As a child, I might have picked it up like a sponge in a sheer attempt to blend in with the crowd. But soon enough, it became a medium for me to connect with my peers and the country I grew to call home, no matter the differences I saw in race and skin colour.

Today, it is just as much a part of my identity as is my grasp of English or Hindi, my mother tongue.

In one Singlish sentence, there are often words from numerous dialects and languages - but when spoken to a fellow Singaporean, it is understood without hesitation.

While favouring Singlish over the standard use of English is a mistake, assuming that the usage of Singlish implies a missed opportunity to master standard English is just as flawed.

As more and more Singaporeans favour English over any other language at home and at work, Singlish can connect us, whether in a conversation with a hawker or with a fellow Singaporean in a foreign land.

I am thankful for my ability to code-switch and hope to raise my kids to be able to do the same.

And as I converse today on the phone and realise how many different experiences are actually being conveyed through the tongues we speak, the switches seem necessary - and wholly enriching.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Speaking good English'. Print Edition | Subscribe