English-speak: don’t go overboard!

I donch know if it’s because of all the hoo-ha whipped up by our dear Straits Times and its affiliates as well as Internet hysteria — against China nationals working in Singapore who are unable to speak even Singlish, let alone your Shakespeare best (not that many, if any, true blue Singaporeans do — but that’s another story).

This is a preamble to a weird exchange earlier this week i had at the Starhub payment booth at the basement of Plaza Singapura where I went to pay my bill.

One of the two cashiers muttered something when I handed over my bill and I replied “shénme?” as i couldn’t make out what she said.

I could have said “Excuse me”, “Beg your pardon?” or “Wot?” (with el-typico Singaporean abruptness) but I automatically chose “shénme?” — probably because I was mentally in a putonghua mode as i happened to be on my way to meet a friend, ST, who is spending big bucks — and investing enormous amounts of time — at a cram school in Park Mall to learn Chinese!

The cashier muttered something in reply and I again said “shénme?” and we began to exchange the sort of glances that total strangers exchange which conveyed flying daggers!

To my 2nd “shénme?” cashier lady raised her voice a little, spoke a little clearer and I got it this time.

“$42.80? OK!” I handed over my credit card as well as the resignation that she had caught me out — I speak English, like the best or the worst of Singaporeans. The rest of the transaction went without hitch; the payment was processed; I was handed the ncessary slips of paper to acknowledge and then my Starhub invoice, payment confirmation and credit card were returned.

Then as I was putting the papers and the card into my handbag, I heard much to my chagrin that the cashier who insisted on muttering — in English — was bantering with her colleague in effortless Mandarin!

I was left to draw several conclusions:

1) They are China nationals and on pain of punishment or worse had been instructed to speak only English to all customers, regardless of whatever language they used.

2) They are Chinese Singaporeans who loathe China nationals and assume anyone who opens his/her mouth and out comes Chinese must be a said China national and so should be forced to speak English — which too many Singaporeans appear to insist is our lingua franca.

3) My putunghua was so bad that it pained the two young ladies’ Chinese speaking sensibilities so much that they were determined to force this heartland auntie wannabe to go back to speaking her primary language, which, alas, is English.

One of the possibilities may be correct or all may be off the mark.

But that incident reminds me again of the strident insistence from too many sides that China nationals working in Singapore should be able to speak English.

I’m surprised, no aghast, that so few of us appreciate this growing pool of native Chinese speakers everywhere we turn in Singapore from whom we can learn to speak Mandarin — for free!  

How many of those who gripe  ad nauseam abt being served by non-English speaking China nationals realise that there are people like ST mentioned earlier and another friend Ismail Kassim (whose story can be found here) who are paying good money to learn Mandarin?

With China rising, it’s an advantage to be able to speak Mandarin and understand a little of the culture in that large country, never mind if we are Singaporeans and don’t care to acknowledge our roots (for those Chinese by race) or don’t have roots to acknowledge (those who are not Chinese by race).

We should just look on the positive aspect of a fait accompli (ie a large inflow of China Chinese) and leverage with all our might; rather than gripe with all our might!

Many from the West would be happy to change places with us, to be immersed in Chinese language and culture without the hardship of having to spend money to acquire both.

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9 thoughts on “English-speak: don’t go overboard!

  1. Pingback: Is Now Really a ’so Nyuh Shi Dae’? – “Not Yet, We’re Still Far …

  2. correct me if i am wrong, but everytime i am out in the satellite estate centres shopkeepers/hawkers/salespeople do readily speak in mandarin/malay, but granted that it’s in orchard road, english is preferable probably because more tourists flock there?

    the problem you mentioned above is also twofold – singaporeans have been indoctrinated with the concept that english comes before mother tongue – out of necessity of economy as well as a common language. little wonder that when a foreigner attempts to adapt to the culture, their failed attempt to at least learn the common language is met with derision.

    at the same time, what singaporeans have gained in their pride in their english fluency (although i have to say the usage of english back home is cringe-worthy in comparison to the real deal in the uk – even in publications online or otherwise), they have lost in their competence in their own mother tongue. those who know me know that i have complete disdain for those who can’t string together a decent sentence in mandarin and make stupid excuses for it, despite being born and bred in sg.

    But i guess those salesgirls were taking things a bit too literally lah. not like you are malay or indian so they bo pian have to speak english to you what…

  3. I’ve been mistaken for a ‘pei du ma ma’ several times in the past. Sales people who normally speak English, communicate with me in Mandarin!! That happens only when I lose my tan.

  4. Haha, Blur T, no such “luck” for me. They were probably put off by my poor Chinese accent and wanted to put me where I belong: English speaking 😀

  5. those who know me know that i have complete disdain for those who can’t string together a decent sentence in mandarin and make stupid excuses for it, despite being born and bred in sg.
    Areya, if u had told me this 20 yrs ago, I wld have disagreed strongly; but today, I buy entirely into yr view. Those who refuse to spk Chinese when they can are even worse, of cos!

    As for the std of the average Singaporeans’ English: agreed, it’s cringe making. Donch know y they bother with the Spk Better English campaign when those who lead the charge don’t even stop a well-known shop from proudly branding itself for decades as Bodynits! (the “k” still remains missing the last time i passed its prominent outlet in Suntec)!

  6. Or cool? When I told a nephew (of the ‘cool” generation) that a shop selling games online had the audacity to write in the About Us section that they were too busy doing business n had no time to waste crafting vision/mission etc rubbish, he replied: “That’s so cool!” I had expected him to say that shop is no place to buy stuff from since they are so sloppy with the basics. Guess the world’s changing! So y r there so many pple in S’pore beating up the China nationals for not knowing how to spik Englise?

  7. cos sgreans in general are self righteous and can’t see beyond the ends of their own noses.

    there. i said it.

  8. Gd 4 u! Altho I can sense an ironic under-current! Btw, y aren’t u blogging again? Miss yr enigmatic, and sometime ambiguous, way of putting things!

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