Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why Can't The English Teach Their Children How To Speak?

So exclaimed Professor Higgins, when despairing of Eliza Dolittle’s inability to conquer her Cockney. Today’s Singaporean, whether young or old, doesn’t conquer Cockney. Rather it is Chinglish/Malglish/Tamglish that has triumphed over them!
Some explanations are in order. Approximately two decades ago, the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” was launched. ‘We are in danger of losing our Chinese-ness’ trumpeted the campaign slogans. And so for many years, Mandarin was relentlessly pursued to the exclusion of all else. Dialects were ruthlessly extirpated, much to the horror of the older generation. Now at the turn of the millennium, it seems that English is having the last laugh for we are smack-dab in the midst of a “Speak Good English” campaign – with billboards and decorated buses extolling proper English usage complete with examples!
Somewhere along the lines, the powers-that-be and the originators of the “Speak Mandarin Campaign” have neglected (overlooked perhaps? though I think not) the blatant fact that (a) Singapore is polyglot and English is the glue that binds, (b) English is the dominant language of the educational system – we certainly profess to be conducting the GCSE examinations, both ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, here, and (c) we are aiming to be a global city with a large influx of foreigners (read “Westerners”).
All this has yielded an amusing result – children and youth who are proficient in neither tongue, i.e. neither pure English nor pure Mandarin, but a nauseating mongrel which detractors have termed “Chinglish”. If you noticed the graphic that accompanies this post, that is a classic example of Chinglish with more than a fair dollop of Singlish thrown in for good measure (pressed down and shaken together). Which, by the way, was a snippet overheard in an exchange between two adolescent female students from a top-ranked academic institution on the MRT en route home. For purposes of diplomacy and in deference to free speech, that school cannot be named here in my post. It can be identified if I reveal, on dit, that the girls wore emerald green skirts with white blouses, think they’re God’s gift to Man, and the institution occupies a prominent lot in the Bishan area.
When I was in school, English held pride of place. We spoke Mandarin only to our language teachers, and only in the designated slots within the curriculum. Today, Mandarin has become the lingua franca of even salesladies in posh boutiques selling French designer apparel – quelle horreur! A recent survey of local undergraduates in an English class at the British Council failed to unearth a single grammatical sentence! And then there are the pronunciations! However, I must convey my heartfelt thanks to the MediaCorp Studios production team for correcting my faulty French pronunciation. As a French speaker I was taught that couture was pronounced “koo-’ter”, or its accepted Anglicized version, “koo-’chure”. After watching the trailers for Project Runway’s Season 3, the faultiness of my pronunciation was brought up short after listening to the voiceover – “KER’er-‘cherr”. MediaCorp, a French-speaker offers you eternal gratitude for the correction!
Even the media is not spared. Signs abound proudly featuring mangled English – of the “Ladies can have fits upstairs” variety; mispronunciation is rampant here too, and not just of foreign languages. Oh no dear sir, I’m speaking of good old English! Just the other day I heard a voiceover on the many trailers and advertisements our free-to-air channels are deluged with ad nauseam, hailing the “preh-meeee-airrrrre” (premiere) of a movie spectacular, the rest of said voiceover delivered in orotund, gloriously overdone and fruitily plummy vowels. Or how about a mini-trailer waxing lyrical about Oprah? I was nonplussed until I realized the subject being discussed was opera, or more specifically, Chinese opera - wayang.
And then there’s The Arena. How could we forget The Arena? MediaCorp’s latest stab at resurrecting the Debates of yesteryear. Listening to pretentious 14-, 15- and 16-year olds attempting to deliver arguments and repartee, all wrapped up in haughty, overdone accents is amusing if one has a taste for masochism. I didn’t. After a bare 20 minutes of such tripe I found I could not face dinner. Maybe the slimming establishments could take note – watching The Arena is good for curbing appetite as I’ve discovered food held zero appeal after an episode.
Returning to the subject at hand, how came we by this sad state of affairs? There is an underlying reason for this – everything must have a reason, naturellement? In the late 80s, not long after I left school, some “expert” in the Ministry of Education postulated that English Grammar was a dinosaur. This person – I still can’t figure out if it was a he or she – then purported that students were far better off learning how to use English naturally, as opposed to dissecting sentences with lost causes such as Past Participle and Present Continuous Tense. Thus it came about that the English syllabus was rewritten in 1991 to accommodate a more “organic” approach to the learning and usage of English. This brainchild was named CLUE – Course for the Learning and Usage of English. In my honest opinion, it was utterly clueless!
“Aye, there’s the rub” as Hamlet would say. It would seem that learning English the “organic” way works in the West as there, English is the natural speech modicum. In Asia, and especially Singapore, however much we profess to globalization, the average parent speaks to his/her child in Mandarin (“Thank YOU ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’!”). Now a whole generation of Singaporean children and youth speak the mongrels of their race, be it “Chinglish”, “Malglish” or “Tamglish”. So if I speak, or seem to speak in exclamation marks, it’s because we are seeing a tidal influx of youth whose ideas of class are speaking fragmented, rudimentary English with an affected accent. If ever there was a sound reason for reviving the guillotine this would win hands down!
Some time ago, a young and pretentious schoolteacher of dubious English provenance sought to loudly question the fact that local children spoke appalling English. My riposte was that it should come as no surprise, as for them, English is relegated to fourth or fifth precedence. She, of course, demanded to know the reason for this; and was duly offended when I answered: “Well, first and foremost are all the vulgarities. Naturally, they have their dialects, usually one or more if their parents are from different clans. Then comes Singlish. After that is Mandarin because of the Mother Tongue movement. And finally there’s English if they have a mind to it!” She was mortified and I say serves her jolly well right!
I think I’m better off speaking Esperanto!

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