Proud to be a code-switcher

I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household in the early 1990s, when Singapore was touting the newly acquired English proficiency of its workforce.

My parents - second- and third- generation Chinese Singaporeans - were well read and moved within cultured circles. Their thoughts unfurled easily in Mandarin - the warm textures of the language my mother used to converse with friends on the phone are woven into the fabric of my memory.

Yet my native fluency in Chinese did not stand me in good stead for a Singaporean education. During an English lesson in Primary 1, I pronounced "knee" as "ker-nee", provoking amusement among my peers and embarrassment at my end; I learnt English, not by speaking it at home, but by reading on my own. When it came to using English, even in everyday situations, my parents stumbled hesitantly in this alien language, which suddenly rendered them inarticulate.

Yet, it was the norm to speak Mandarin in my neighbourhood primary school. Things got so bad that teachers had to threaten to impose a fine of 10 cents for each time we blurted out Mandarin.

Moving to secondary school, however, was a different ball game. I enrolled at the same convent school as a friend from primary school, and on meeting up on the first day, we unanimously started to speak in English.

During those secondary years, however, the "Huayu Cool" movement - part of the Speak Mandarin campaign - was in full force. To us, its name reeked of irony. In most circles we mixed in, Mandarin was definitely not cool. Westernised classmates laughingly outed themselves as "kantangs" or "bananas" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), brandishing their hopeless grades in Chinese as a badge of honour.

Code-switching may come easily to me, but was that born out of a desire to relate better to others - or to mask the sense of insecurity that I felt at my parents' inability to do so?

It got awkward when we met our former primary school friends in the months after that: English, or even Singlish, felt stilted and formal, lacking in the guttural sense of familiarity that we had grown up with. But Mandarin felt patronising, too, like we were trying too hard to fit in.

In the multilingual landscape of Singapore, code-switching is ubiquitous. Its textbook definition: When a speaker alternates between two or more languages or language varieties.

Spirited defenders of Singlish often invoke the ability of Singaporeans to code-switch between Singlish and standard English as a counter-argument to those who deride it as a sign of declining standards of English among Singaporeans. That camp found even more grounds for justification when 19 Singlish terms were included in the Oxford English Dictionary last year.

But the uproar that erupted over one such accepted phrase, "Chinese helicopter" - a derogatory term for Chinese-educated Singaporeans who are mocked for their less fluent command of English - threw up niggling questions. What does it mean when people like my so-called "Chinese helicopter" parents are unable to code-switch from Mandarin into English? Are some codes considered superior to others? What makes us code-switch, and why?

It seems to me that rudimentary, face-value assessments of social class and education often dictate our use of different language codes. At work, I sometimes feel guilty for using these metrics to assess my newsmakers when I decide on the language that will put them the most at ease. Does the atas-looking office lady look like she can best articulate her opinions on the latest policy change in English? Would spewing a jumble of Mandarin and Singlish make the beer-guzzling uncle at the hawker centre warm to me and give some soundbite-worthy quotes?

It was only when I watched Singapore film-maker Eva Tang's acclaimed xinyao documentary, The Songs We Sang, that I began to pinpoint the source of my overwhelming sense of self-consciousness when it came to code-switching.

One scene particularly hit home: vocal coach and Nanyang University graduate Ken Chang recounting the trauma of being dismissed as uneducated because of his stuttering English.

There have been many occasions when I have seen how my "Chinese helicopter" parents' lack of proficiency in English held them back from integrating into the workforce. I sometimes grew impatient with them in the years of my angry adolescence, faulting them for tripping over English words and struggling to understand the universe that I lived in.

Code-switching may come easily to me, but was that born out of a desire to relate better to others - or to mask the sense of insecurity that I felt at my parents' inability to do so?

Perhaps it was my own biases that affected the way I saw them. As Singapore's language policies evolved from the post-Independence days, with English now deemed the "working language" most essential for productivity and economic purposes, I, like many other Singaporeans, seem to have elevated its status, while relegating our mother tongue.

The Chinese-educated from generations before, however, have meanwhile grappled with finding a place within this milieu - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself noted in a Facebook post about the xinyao documentary in April last year. He wrote: "Xinyao's history is tied up with the changes in our society and education system, and the difficult time which that generation of Chinese-speaking Singaporeans had... adjusting to the new economy using English as the working language."

After emerging from the cinema, I texted my parents: "You should watch the film, it was very moving." What I failed to say, however, was: I'm sorry to have privileged one language over another in the past.

In an increasingly cosmopolitan world, code-switching serves to establish immediate rapport with different groups of people.

But in a post-SG50 age, it also fosters a sense of authenticity that is difficult to reproduce in translation. Be it English, Singlish, Malay or Mandarin - we have so much to lose if we were to impose a hierarchy on the different language varieties we use. It took a long time for me to learn that lesson.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Proud to be a code-switcher'. Print Edition | Subscribe