How Standard English messes with everything (#hyperbole)

by on November 14, 2014

Picture the following scenario: You’re in a classroom. You’ve just had a heavy meal. Your English teacher is droning on and on about the importance of subject-verb agreement or some other grammatical formality you’ll never pay much attention to outside the classroom anyway.

How do you feel? Glum? Irritated? Perplexed at what possible value this (i.e. the scenario and/or the time you spent reading it) could have added to your life? I can’t really help you with that last one, but I’m sure the situation above would not have been unfamiliar to those of you raised in countries or territories which were once colonies of English-speaking nations.

From Singapore to Hong Kong to the Philippines to Uganda, efforts to promote Standard English via language policies, educational institutions, and Western popular culture exports have led to mixed results. Often, Standard English is used in reference to English varieties spoken by people from economically powerful (e.g. US) or historically colonial (e.g. UK) nations. When such varieties are held up as ideal, local languages and varieties of English often find themselves in relatively awkward cultural positions.

Let’s examine how the fascination with Standard English has impacted life in Singapore and Hong Kong, shall we?

Singapore: Colonial past + pop culture present = hilarious future (if you’re a tourist)

Nothing says “there’s no place like home” like a trip to McDonalds. Singapore has been so drastically Americanised that one would be hard pressed to find a neighbourhood without an outlet or two serving its tiny trademarked synthetic offal burgers and overpriced “freedom” fries.

standard english
This fellow seems to be two fries short of a happy meal. (image source)

McDonalds isn’t the only symptom of cultural influence in Singapore, though. Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew recently remarked that a shift in emphasis in Singaporean schools was required: out with British English and in with American!

Travel tip for Caucasoid readers visiting Singapore anytime soon: If you’re feeling adventurous, walk down any Singaporean street in your floral prints and attempt to carry on a friendly conversation with a local. You might just find one willing to speak in the fakest American accent ever! Yup, old habits die hard and so do colonial hang-ups.

You see, popular culture and a notorious government “Speak Good English” campaign has left English-educated Singaporeans mostly exposed to three kinds of English: Singlish (a colloquial dialect full of fun word-play), British English (all glory to our forefathers), and the idealised Hollywood standard.

This, of course, has the effect of leaving British, Australian, Texan, Irish, and all other manner of accent out of the equation. Sorry folks! Because Singaporeans don’t speak “Foreign”, tourists such as yourselves might be left scratching your heads as to why you didn’t just fly a quarter of the distance to see the REAL DEAL (land of the free etc.).

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Answer: The food, sans McDonalds. By the way, check out Frances’ article here for more on Singapore’s culinary treasures. Image credits: Kathlyn Loke

Well, it’s not like Singapore’s media is any better. Given its chummy ties to the state, it was only a matter of time before comedian/Singlish guru Phua Chu Kang was forced to take English lessons as part of the plot on his syndicated weekly sitcom. Ratings tanked and the show was cancelled soon after. Unfortunately, Singaporeans have been left with only free online start-up linguistic-y magazines for their humour fixes ever since.

Having learned their lesson, Singapore’s only free-to-air English TV channel decided to take their brand of Standard English mainstream, establishing a game show called Say the Word. Each week in early 2014, Singaporeans were treated to the glorious sight of four of their contemporaries fighting it out to win cold hard cash by stiffening their upper lips, BBC style. S-A-L-M-O-N. “Is it seh-mon or sell-mon?” Seriously?

standard english
Would it have been that hard to attach the logo’s big mouth to a similarly sized brain? (image source)

Now, I wouldn’t have that big of a bone to pick with these efforts if they weren’t so often accompanied by lamentations of “Singapore has no culture!!!”

Well, first and foremost, that is a bold-faced lie (as if the picture of delicious food above hasn’t already convinced you of this). And to my dear state apparatus, you do realise that the two examples I just mentioned above are doing everything in their power to turn your claim into a self-fulfilling prophesy, right?

Singapore’s proud Singlish tradition is part of the reason why the nation is such a vibrant metropolis in the first place! Locals instantly know they’re home and visitors get a good laugh, if nothing else. Don’t believe me? Check out this anecdote by my friend who knew she was home even before her flight On Singapore Airlines from London crossed into Turkish airspace.

“On the flight back to Singapore from the UK two Singaporean flight attendants were serving my row.

I’m the only Singaporean around. Next to me and behind me sat two British couples.

The stewardess spoke Standard English with a Singaporean accent but the couple next to me had to get her to repeat herself quite a few times.

After a couple of failed attempts at obtaining bland chicken-like sustenance, Captain Singlish (a steward) came by to assist the poor bloke.

Captain Singlish (in his best superhero impression): Uh sorry sir, the drink you want ah, don’t have in the cart. I… go to the back and get you another one.

Brit Bloke: Oh no it’s alright, it’s alright!

Captain Singlish (quite confidently): Neh-mine!!! (Colloquial pronunciation of “never mind”, for the uninitiated) I go and get you another one!

Brit Bloke: It’s alright, it’s alright! (Jovi’s note: this guy seems to either have a limited vocabulary or have drunk too many Singapore Slings beforehand.)

Captain Singlish: Neh-mine, neh-mine! I go and get you another one!

Despite Captain Singlish’s pure unadulterated Singaporean-ness, the guy behind me understood everything he said immediately.

I discreetly laughed my tail end off.”

Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the higher ups have heard about Captain Singlish since then. Poor guy’s probably looking for another job by now. C’est la vie.

Hong Kong: Colonial past + PRC present = Occupy Central (and English issues)

Hong Kong is one of my favourite places to travel to. The awesome food, public transport system, and attractions never cease to amuse me. As a result, I make it a point to make a trip up every few winters or so to leave the scorching heat of Singapore. Hmm… that probably explains my snarky attitude above.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s peaceful veneer sometimes slips off and its people start going: Who me? Chinese (by nationality)? Hell no! Not only is Mandarin monolingualism (the ability to speak only one language) hardly the norm in Hong Kong, its residents are more than likely to speak a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English in their daily lives.

languages hong kong
Languages spoken in Hong Kong, 2011 (image source)

You’d be hard pressed to be aware of this if you stayed in one of their awesome five-star hotels, however. Apparently, the accent bug has bitten Hong Kong’s high end service industry as well. Being a thoroughbred plebeian, I’ve only had the honour of staying at such an establishment once in my life, and while it was certainly comfortable, I felt like I was in London more than Hong Kong. Based on my interactions with hotel staff, it seemed likely that they had been pre-screened for English proficiency and trained in the art of accent neutralisation.

It’s still worth a visit for the pampering alone, once the protesters leave the area. (image source)

I discovered later that this phenomenon had its roots in Hong Kong’s colonial history. Throughout the 20th century, the British were known for being relatively lax in imposing English upon Hong Kong’s wider population. Instead, they trained only a small elite selection of locals to be English proficient, thereby entrenching a class divide among locals along the lines of language.

The fact that luxury, opulence, and all other manner of upper class living in Hong Kong today demand a standard of English reminiscent of colonial England shows that this divide persists, idealising Standard English as a marker of social class.

Another interesting fact I have discovered during my visits to Hong Kong is that my name, Jovi, is rather popular in the territory. Among women.

One thing Hong Kong and China have in common is their growing fascination with “trendy”, “cosmopolitan” names of English origin. It seems like meaning has gone out the window and the possession of a name which remotely sounds “Western” is enough to demonstrate, I don’t know, a degree of affluence and a globalised outlook? Apparently class consciousness affects us from before we can even remember! Some of the more eyebrow-raising ones I’ve come across include: Apple Chiu, Happy Lo, Cupid Cue, Jolly Wang, and Black Dong.

I bet he graduated with perfect grades! (image source)

The side effects of naming, however, cannot be overemphasised. The number of times I’ve been addressed as “Ma’am” by well-intentioned Hong Kong service staff who only know me by my name is proof of that. Oh well, I guess a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet after all.

Standard English has affected Hong Kong in more ways than just the futures of its bundles of joy. After the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, its residents suffered a strained relationship with Beijing which has lasted to this day. This relationship was not helped by the fact that immediately post-handover, the territory’s government decided that Chinese and English medium schools were to be kept exclusive and separated, under the assumption that language mixing within the education system would lead to a decline in standards of English.

By ensuring that students did not cross between schools which used different languages of instruction, the government assumed that school environments would ensure proficiency in one language rather than risk sub-par proficiency in two. Apparently, they were juggling between appeasing their new ruling power but also couldn’t just completely ignore the potential economic benefits associated with Standard English.

I don’t know about you, but the Hong Kong government’s logic seemed mighty suspect to me. I mean, come on! Given that school only takes up six or so hours a day, the majority of a student’s time would be spent in multilingual environments! Would the government have liked to regulate that too? The thought seems almost comical.

Today, language separation is still deemed beneficial within Hong Kong’s education system. Given the sour relations between Hong Kong and China at the moment, I most certainly hope to gain a more nuanced understanding of the issue (amongst others, of course) during my next jaunt over to the territory later this year, perhaps over coffee with some members of the crowd!

So… Now what?

The notion of English (standard, local, etc.) may not be as simple as it initially appears. Despite the simple premise that language is first and foremost a medium of communication, issues of context, identity, and power often complicate both the environments languages are spoken in as well as the languages themselves.

In the case of Singapore, popular culture and government campaigns advocating Standard English (without accounting for local language use) have resulted in ambivalence towards English’s local varieties, although evidence has shown that it may well be easier to communicate using Standard English. Concerns over culture have also manifested themselves in language policy, where goals and outcomes have been clearly divergent.

In the case of Hong Kong, Standard English was shown to be an important indicator of social class, especially within its service industry and naming practices. Also, the idealistic notion of Standard English requiring a degree of purity was examined through the separation of languages in Hong Kong schools.

Thus, while we may wish to change some of our society’s assumptions about Standard English, individual users like us may not be able to do much in a short amount of time. However, by using language reflexively as well as celebrating linguistic diversity in our respective environments, perhaps one day local varieties of English will gain their rightful place as valid languages in their own right.

I hope I’ve proven to you that the West is not the world’s sole repository of knowledge. Local traditions do often reveal significant value should one look hard enough. I looked, and I found. And apparently, so did he:

A brilliant mind indeed. (Disclaimer: Not an actual Confucian saying) (image source)

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