Improving is tough if bad English is all children hear

Book cover: Grammar Rules, published by the Speak Good English Movement.
Book cover: Grammar Rules, published by the Speak Good English Movement.PHOTO: SPEAK GOOD ENGLISH MOVEMENT

I applaud the approach taken by the Speak Good English Movement.

It accepts Singlish as part of our Singaporean identity but, at the same time, stresses the need to be understood beyond our shores and connect with the rest of the world.

I especially like the new tag lines such as: Let's be understood from Lakeside to London (A friendlier, more relatable Speak Good English Movement, Aug 13).

There is without doubt a great deal of broken English in Singlish. But instead of arguing over the difference, it is more useful to improve our use of standard English. A lot of the "brokenness" comes from the direct translation of Chinese into English. For example: "Like that can?", instead of "Is this OK?"

"Can. Can." ("Sure.")

"I do finish already." ("I've already finished it." or "I'm done.")

"You go where?" ("Where are you going?")

"You got check or not?" ("Have you checked it?")

While it is common to hear the younger generation speak this way, we rarely hear our older generations doing so.

I was reminded of this when I took my son to the National Museum and heard a recording of an elderly man in his 70s. He spoke clearly without grammatical errors and in a distinctively Singaporean accent.

Some blame the poor English spoken by Singaporeans on the bilingual policy, saying that it has confused our children.

Then what about the older generations who spoke several dialects? How did they still attain such a high standard of English?

Anyway, it is more important to address the problem before our standard of English slides further until it becomes a disadvantage to learn English in Singapore. I have a few questions for us to consider:

•Are Singaporeans aware of the difference between broken and standard English?

•Does it matter?

It matters as the general environment can greatly impact a child's language acquisition. The way teachers, classmates, friends, neighbours and media personalities speak shapes our language environment.

Repeated correction of my son's serious grammatical errors cannot fight the constant exposure. Our children speak broken English because it is what they hear every day.

And if left unchecked, most will continue to speak like this and pass it on to future generations. Worse, few would be able to tell the difference between broken and standard English.

Ng Poh Leng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2019, with the headline 'Improving is tough if bad English is all children hear'. Print Edition | Subscribe