The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Does Singlish - Singaporean English - communicate?

The question is a general one. However, I am going to look at it through one particular, though in its way, not uncommon incident.

Singapore has, as anyone who has visited it will know, its own version of English, known as Singlish. This is a form of English that uses words that are derived from the other languages present in Singapore (ie. Mandarin and Malay) - and variations on basic grammatical structures that are far from standard English. In consequence, it can be difficult for a native speaker of English, who is not familiar with this variant, to understand a speaker of Singlish. I certainly had difficulty understanding speakers of Singlish, when I first came to Singapore (and still do from time to time, in the more extreme cases).

There is another problem, of course, but a lesser one. If a Singaporean speaks Singlish, but does not watch enough TV (which is mainly British and American English tv shows), they might not understand a native English speaker, when speaking to them. (Though they should understand standard written English, for all words should actually be familiar to them).

In recent years, Singapore mounted a "speak standard English" campaign - but it was rather a failure and, it seems, the government gave up on it, since I don't see any prolonged efforts to educate the population in English, as it should be.

What effect does this have on communication between Singaporeans and natives of other countries (who are native English speakers)?

Well, recently, I went into a supermarket. When I got to the checkout, I recognized the person who was serving. He looked exhausted, so I decided to enquire how he was.

“Are you tired this evening?” I said, gently, looking at his baggy eyes.

“No, I am just sleepy.”

I left it at that. Clearly, a conversation was not going to be possible: either he didn't understand the word "tired" - or he didn't understand my accent (a standard British accent). I gave up.

This kind of communication problem is not uncommon in Singapore. Usually, however, it is the other way around: it is I who cannot understand the native Singaporean. This occurs even in quite surprising contexts. I have met intelligent businessmen in Singapore, who cannot, who simply CANNOT communicate in English. Their sentences so defy the structures of English that they lose all intelligible meaning. I have to listen very hard and pretend that I understand. Somehow, these businessmen, who are successful in a Singaporean context (through speaking Mandarin, no doubt), cannot communicate their thoughts in English. What is the direct consequence of this? I have to find someone else to do business with. I cannot work with people I cannot understand. So, I move on.

No doubt, this story is repeated millions of times a year, when native speakers of English encounter Singaporeans who speak Singlish. No doubt, those native speakers of English go through the process of meeting and failing to understand the Singaporeans and then having to look around for others to relate to that they can understand. No doubt the business - or other benefit of international communication - goes to the Singaporeans who are able to speak English well enough to deal internationally.

I think the dimension of the problem is not really understood by Singaporeans themselves. They speak to each other in Singlish. To them, it is normal. It is only when they speak to outsiders that they might come to realize that there is a difficulty.

I believe the problem is under-played, here, in Singapore - partly because it is a problem that is quite difficult to fix. The teachers of English, here, speak Singlish. So, Singaporeans are themselves learning from people who speak English poorly. Perhaps, however, there lies a solution. In the days of Empire, I believe that the English teachers were English natives. It is time to return to those days. It is time that ALL English teachers in ALL Singaporean schools were English natives. Then, in one generation, Singaporeans would come to speak Standard English - and never again would natives of the English speaking world, perhaps here to do business, encounter the communication problems that are so common today.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and seven months, and Tiarnan, two years exactly, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

Labels: , , , , , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:11 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

I quite like the English accent. Sounds so quaint.

9:39 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape