We all speak it anyway: An interview with Tan Ying Ying

by and on September 1, 2015

Natalie Tong and Natalie Chang speak with Dr Tan Ying Ying to find out more about the linguistic landscape of Singapore. Dr Tan is an Associate Professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), in the Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies. She was awarded the Fung Global Fellowship in 2013, where she was in Princeton University to work on her book, Illegitimate Tongues. Dr Tan’s research interests include socio-phonetics, language planning, and policy.


How did you become interested in phonetics and sociolinguistics?

I started working on phonetics for my PhD. I did a lot of measurements and I looked at intonation and stress because the question that really interested me was “Is there really such a thing as stress?” Given the Singaporean context where people speak multiple languages, the whole idea of stress seems very Anglo-centric. I wasn’t quite sure if I knew what “stress” was, and how it applied to multilingual speakers. So when you speak multiple languages, do you know what the cues for stress are? How do we listen out for stress?  

By the end of my PhD work, I realised that what I thought was a purely phonetic-ky project actually raised bigger questions which could not be answered by phonetics alone. The measurements, to a certain extent, tell you how people actually produce stress differently or listen to stress differently, but the bigger question of “why” made me go into more sociolinguistic issues. Perhaps it has something to do with the multilingual repertoire that speakers possess. So I looked into that direction, merging the two to find out what exactly it is about speech that allows one to explore bigger issues, and I started to find pieces of the puzzle. Hence, the idea of sociophonetics—phonetics as evidence or as data for sociological phenomena.

So that’s pretty much my life story up to this point!

Singaporeans are known to have a distinctively Singaporean accent. Could you describe what characterises it?

I really don’t know, and it’s been a question I’ve been thinking about for the longest time. I actually have projects on this. When I first started, I thought the Singaporean accent could be quantified. So I thought I could look at stress, intonation, rhythm, vowels, consonants, and say “There you go, we have a Singaporean accent!” But the fact is, it’s not that simple. And I think the way I have started to approach this is by not trying to pin down exactly what makes the Singaporean accent, but to contend with the fact that it’s really a combination of all these many variables, and that the extent of each component simply cannot be teased out.

I’ve been trying to show from perceptual studies and to answer the question, “Is the Singaporean accent really distinctive?” And the answer is yes, it is. People could identify it instantly. The same thing can be said about American and British accents. But rather than simply looking at what makes a Singaporean accent, I was more interested in whether or not the Singaporean accent is good enough for the international stage.

And so I ran a study. I had some American speakers say a few things, and some Singaporean speakers saying the same few things. I played them to 300 people all over the world, excluding Singaporeans, including Americans. All they had to do was listen and reproduce on paper what they just heard. And the results were quite interesting, because what it actually showed was that the American speakers did not receive very high scores for comprehensibility. The Singaporeans on the other hand did pretty well; people understood most of them.

This was interesting, and I wondered what listeners thought about the speakers themselves. So I ran some attitudinal studies. And everyone rated the Americans as excellent, clever—positive attributes were given to the American speakers; but the Singaporean speakers received very low scores. The only people who actually rated Singaporeans very well were the Westerners, while Asians rated them poorly. And this made me wonder, is this a kind of inferiority complex? We have a certain idealised standard for who we think can be considered cultured. Therefore regardless of whether you understand this person or not you might think, “Oh, this person is great!” But if you actually understood the other person better, then why did you rate this person worse?

And so I extrapolated that to look into our fascination with the standard, our ideals of what is standard. What exactly is it? Is it an ideal American speaker, an ideal British speaker? I’m not sure, but to bring it back to the question, it’s certainly time to look at our ideal Singaporean speaker. I’m not saying that we all need to go around speaking Singlish. I think Singlish has its place, and it should be championed, but certainly there is a place for a standard Singaporean variety. And that someone just needs to go up there and say, “Look, don’t be ashamed of it. We all speak it anyway.”

There is an increasing number of Singaporeans who are more fluent in English than their assigned “mother tongues”. What do you think of acknowledging English as a Mother Tongue for Singaporeans, apart from or in place of the other traditional mother tongues?

I think English is starting to come in as a possible mother tongue, not based on what the state assigns us, but what its definition is by one’s use and beliefs. People are starting to say things like, “Well, I speak English a lot, and English is really my first language, mother tongue, native tongue.” So once you have that as a basis to begin with, the whole notion of mother tongue is no longer just simply the defined, assigned mother tongue like Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. And you start to cast questions about what exactly does mother tongue mean?

Can we still define mother tongue by the fact that we have been given a paternal language that is linked by our ethnic “assignment”? And how  much of these ethnic languages in fact, tell us something about our origins, our heritage, even just our linguistic identity? So I think from that perspective, by just having English as one of the key players here, it throws up a few questions that people may need to reconsider.

I was recently championing our need to re-conceptualise the notion of the mother tongue. All the definitions so far have not fit, and if we’re stuck to the fact that we need mother tongues because of our racial policies, then let it be that, but people need to have an understanding of what mother tongues really mean to them, and I propose linguistic definitions to them.

There is also an increasing interest in revitalising Chinese “dialects” in Singapore in recent years. Do you think there is a place for these “dialects” in Singapore, and what are the chances of the aforementioned efforts being successful?

Bringing us back to the notion of mother tongues is the idea of the Chinese “dialects” for the Chinese community. If you look at the census data, people have not used all these non-Mandarin Chinese languages very much anymore, be it at home and elsewhere. But there seems to be a resurgence—I would call it not so much using it—but a certain exoticisation; a kind of indulgence in wanting to use it—you don’t actually speak it, but there is a love for it. It could also be a sense of wanting to show resistance, to want to have these languages resurrected.

And this is happening with the younger folks, you don’t see it with the middle generation. The baby boomers, for example, would probably say, “Ah who cares? So far we have done well, we’ve managed to survive without using dialects”, but younger generations seem to want to have them back. So you can see that on blogs and websites, people are trying to bring dialects back. To what extent is it going to be successful? I don’t know. Are people going to bring the languages back? I don’t think so, but I like the idea that people are actually making an attempt, which is good.

Singapore has been experiencing an increase in the number of foreigners, leading to exposure to many different foreign accents and languages. Do you think this could potentially change Singapore’s linguistic landscape?

I think it will. I don’t have empirical facts and I’m not sure how much it’s going to change the linguistic forms of how we speak, but what I think will happen is that exposure to different people and language varieties can make us better at understanding other people and be more open-minded. Furthermore, when people have more exposure to different accents, they seem to have fewer problems with comprehensibility and intelligibility, because their ears will be trained to listen to different cues. But having said that, I’m not sure if it will actually change the structure of the language itself. Attitudinally though, I think it will make people more accepting of different cultures and languages. Maybe. I’m guessing. Best case scenario.

How do you think languages are represented in the media? For example, do you see Singlish as being negatively portrayed?

Actually, no, to be honest. I think Singlish has its role. From what I have observed, Singlish has always been the language of fun and play. It’s been used in some television programmes—the old ones like Phua Chu Kang and and more recently, The Noose. I thought The Noose was kind of interesting because it plays up different accents and makes fun of everybody including themselves. So that was actually quite fun. If you look at social media and people doing video clips, it looks like there’s no real negativity attached to that. But having said that, it’s because it’s done by the people.

You can’t deny that Singlish is very Singaporean, and somewhat a part of our national identity. If you look at the Singapore Tourism Board website, Singlish is marked as one of those interestingly, uniquely Singaporean things. So does the state view Singlish negatively? No, not quite. But what I see is that it is accepted and celebrated when it suits the occasion.

You mentioned a lot about the language policies that we have. Does this have to do with a project you were engaged in, called Illegitimate Tongues?

Yes. I was working on a book while on my fellowship with Princeton, and the idea was to think of Singapore as an example in relation to bigger issues on language politics as a whole. So the context for this was if you think about language policy studies over the last 20 to 30 years, very traditional language policy studies have just simply dealt with how to solve problems in a particular place.  But others have come in and said, “Well then, what about bigger ideas? For example, are these language policies in fact good for one’s maintenance of rights?” We have questions like language rights, and more importantly, the latest movement that has come on is linguistic justice.

So my project comes in by trying to bridge the two different approaches in order to try to reach a balance. Singapore becomes a very interesting point of study because it’s been described to a large extent. Linguists have talked about the language policy of Singapore very much, but the way they have talked about it is often very descriptive. Some people are slightly more critical; they say “Well, it hasn’t quite worked so well, it could have been better in some way or another.” But Singapore has not been dealt with enough.

And I kept asking people why, because Singapore is interesting. Do Singaporeans understand what it means to have rights to your language? Rights discourse seems to have been avoided so far. And so my project takes it from two avenues where I’m trying to make things work. One is to bridge the conversation between traditional linguistics study and political philosophy. The other is approaching language policy from the ground up rather than the top down. I’m interested in what people on the ground say, ethnography work, looking at different perceptions and manifestations of language ideologies and linguistic practices, and looking for things that have signs of language policy at work rather than policy-making itself.

So why Illegitimate? Because I think the whole idea behind this is that in the Singapore context, languages seem have a legitimate and illegitimate form. English is also illegitimate because English is not a legitimate mother tongue. Different languages will have different chapters in the book.

What are some obstacles that you’ve encountered when you conduct your fieldwork?

I think the major one is “How can I extract myself from this?” As a Singaporean working on Singaporean issues, I often have to take a step back and ask myself, “Is this true? Am I imposing my own thoughts?” So that’s one of the major obstacles for me. The way to get around it is to get people to help, ask around, check things.

Then I think it’s about getting people to participate in things. Phonetics is, as you probably know, time-consuming. Just getting people who are willing to be a part of it is difficult. Policy work is a bit different because it’s a lot more sensitive, and even though my questions are not terribly sensitive—like “What is the language that you speak at home?”—very often people tell you the answers that they imagine somebody would like to hear, and you’re left wondering if they’re telling the truth. It can be difficult to get people to reveal how they really feel about certain issues. That’s another one of the major obstacles.

Lastly, do you have a favourite language?

Can I say Singlish? I like it. I think I’m a really proficient Singlish speaker. (Laughs)

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