Why I don’t speak Argentine, Kenyan or Singaporean

by on November 25, 2015

Yes, I am from Singapore, and no, I do not speak Singaporean (or its lesser-known dialects, Singaporeanese, Singaporisch, Singaporlish, and Singaporan).

The reason for this is, quite plainly, that there is no such language.

You’ll honestly be amazed at the number of times I have been subject to the following conversation while on exchange in Madrid and travelling around Europe:

New Spanish acquaintance: “Oh, wow. You speak English quite well!”

Me: “Uh, thanks! Yes. We do speak that in Singapore.”

New Spanish acquaintance: “Really? Don’t you guys speak Singaporean?”

Me: “Uh, no… we have four official languages, including English. Quite a few people speak English.”

New Spanish acquaintance: “Wow! How come?”

Me: “Well, blah British Empire blah British colony blah bilingualism blah common language blah financial hub blah lah leh lor meh huh bopian chey sialah where got.”

New Spanish acquaintance: “How interesting.”

Me: “Yeah, you know, just like how, like Argentina used to be a Spanish colony? They don’t speak like… Argentine…or Argentinian…”

New Spanish acquaintance: “Oh yes! I never thought of that!”

Never assume what someone’s first language is going to be, even if you’ve heard hir open hir mouth and speak perfect, unassailable Esperanto or Klingon. There are several reasons for this:

1. The world is presently an even more diverse place than it used to be.

Leaving aside Singaporeans and our insanely diverse plethora of backgrounds for a minute, in Madrid, I’ve become great friends with a bilingual Spanish-English speaker who was brought up in both languages from birth, while her best friend was born in Bulgaria, but speaks only flawless Spanish. Another classmate is Belgian and speaks both English and Dutch to perfection (and his Spanish isn’t too shoddy either). Some of our tutors are fluent in several languages. It’s impossible to guess which they started out with—and one shouldn’t, not in a world where you can be born in one country and learn one language, move to another for primary school and learn a second, and end up matriculating at a university that offers instruction in a third; or simply be born to parents (with parents of their own!) who hail from different backgrounds, are comfortable in different tongues and who speak to you in all of them.

Even if you met all the Singaporeans you could out of Singapore, for example, chances are you’d find a bunch of people conversant in just English, but also as many fluent in both English and one of the other three official languages (Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil), a handful fluent in three or even all four, quite a few fluent in English, Mandarin and another non-official Chinese dialect—and we haven’t even started on ‘newer’ Singaporeans who claim English and what we in Singapore call a “foreign language” as their native languages: Japanese, Thai, Tagalog, et cetera.

People, and languages, move a lot more freely now, and it’s probably a bad idea to assume that a German citizen is always going to have spoken German as a native (Turkish is really big in Germany nowadays!) or that an American will speak English. Which brings me to my second point:

 2. Country names, ethnicity names, and language names often do not match up.

Of course, the more obvious examples of this would be Americans speaking American or yes, Argentinians speaking Argentine, but there is a large number of countries whose ethnicities and languages, for various reasons, do not fit the “country name = ethnicity name = language name” common factor rule. (By the way, the word for a person from a particular locale is demonym—so the demonym for someone from Mongolia would be ‘Mongolian’). No one from Malaysia speaks “Malaysian”; no one from Kenya speaks “Kenyan”; no one from Colombia speaks “Colombian.” Certainly no one from the Vatican City speaks Vaticanese.

The Holy See aside, many of these countries are former colonies of the 19th century European Empires like Great Britain, France, Portugal, and Spain; the language of the particular empire they used to belong to often remains in force as a “common” language that is used in administration, business, and government, and quite often in education too. Large numbers of children born after the decolonisation era of the 1950s–1960s spoke the language at home and learnt it in school. Ghana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, and Tanzania, being former colonies of Great Britain retained English; former French colonies Senegal, St Lucia and Togo kept French, while Angola, Brazil, and East Timor still have Portuguese, and most of the rest of Latin America, Spanish.

Does this mean I can deduce what people from ex-colonial states speak if I know which empire colonised them? Let’s look at Singapore’s two neighbours. Malaysia, a former British colony, has Malay as the national language, but English is also still very commonly used and is still being used at home, though the number of families still doing so seems to be declining. By contrast, Indonesia is a former Dutch colony, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find Dutch speakers there—although you will find instead millions of speakers of Javanese, Boyanese, Gorantalo and some other languages native to the archipelago, and just one official language: Bahasa Indonesia.

Many other ex-colonial countries also have great linguistic diversity but just one or a few official languages that may or may not correspond to the language of the empire that once ruled them. Nigeria has more than 500 languages native to the regions it controls, but English is the only official language; while Papua New Guinea has a whopping 839 languages, but only recognises English, Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin, and Papua New Guinea Sign Language. Even Spain, though no longer as linguistically diverse as it once may have been, has very significant numbers of Basque and Catalan native speakers, many of them would probably feel quite strongly about someone assuming their native language to be Spanish. That leads me to my third, and most important point:

3. No one likes to feel small. / Just ask. 

Singapore is a pretty small country, yes. (Good luck finding us on most atlases and tabletop globes.) We’re not as well-known as, say, France, Japan or Brazil might be—but we’re still here, still part of the increasingly global conversation, still moving around and getting to know people from all corners of this beautiful planet. There are only 5 and a half million or so of us (7 million, soon, apparently) but we’d still like to be treated as decently as everyone else, which is to say that it’d be so much better if you just took the time to Wiki us and figure out what exactly we might speak if you really need to assume—or better yet, just ask! We’re more than happy to oblige, and there are so many fascinating things we could tell you about blah blah Singapore English particles and blah blah kiasu kiasi pek cek.

And I think this goes for most people too. Whether the person is from Trinidad and Tobago, or South Sudan, or Kyrgyzstan, or even the United States—it’s best not to assume, because in our day and age, you really don’t know what kind of background someone is going to have, and what vastly more interesting conversations you could have by simply asking instead of assuming and turning the person off entirely. I’m okay; I love educating people about language. But it still stings a little that we’re often rather carelessly relegated to the margins of our new acquaintance’s knowledge and conceptualisations of the world. Sure, you might not know anything about Eritrea, or Belarus, or the Solomon Islands—so why not just ask?

Of course, like I talked about before, we might see a unique Singaporeanese language emerge sometime in the near future. But for now, speaking Singaporean, and other presently non-existent languages, is tough. I’m all for speaking languages that we know to exist, and that we’re all comfortable with—like a language that shows you’re willing to listen to my own experience of the world, and I to yours.

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