Forum: Many Singaporeans struggle with language proficiency

Many of my foreign friends hail from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. On many occasions, they were very amazed and perplexed by the manner in which Chinese Singaporeans speak.

From their observations, they said many locals here are very predisposed to articulating their thoughts in several languages when constructing a sentence in daily conversation.

At first instance, this appears to be a demonstration of linguistic ability and thus sounds "impressive" to these foreigners.

The sad reality is that many Singaporeans are simply not proficient in any spoken language. For instance, one may start speaking in English but halfway through the conversation, is unable to adequately articulate an idea.

In order to complete one's sentence, one has to borrow words from Mandarin or even Chinese dialects. Personally, I am also guilty of such a weakness.

Similarly, in discussions conducted in Mandarin that involve technical jargon, it is common for speakers to use English for the technical terms because they do not know what the Chinese equivalent is.

I would imagine not many Chinese Singaporeans would be able to adroitly express the law of diminishing returns in economics or gravitational force in physics or the various chemical elements in Mandarin.

I distinctly remember during my tour of Taiwan in January 2019, I was inundated with a plethora of technical terms in Mandarin which I found rather challenging. It made communication with the Taiwanese pretty tough.

It is shameful to have to frequently resort to speaking a multitude of languages within one sentence to get a point across.

There is a misguided notion that Singapore is a bilingual society.

The fact is, many Singaporeans are jacks of all trades in terms of language, while failing to master any single one sufficiently.

The majority are comfortable with and adept in one language, mostly English since it is the working language here.

We are, at best, monolingual. Only language professionals, including linguists, translators and transcribers, could qualify as effectively bilingual.

It is imperative that Singaporeans make a concerted effort to overcome this language deficiency.

One needs to invest an inordinate amount of time to build a solid foundation in a language.

Reading widely is certainly one useful way to do this.

Teo Kok Seah