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 +

Monday, March 23, 2009

The mysteries of Singlish.

Singlish is the version of English current among most Singaporeans. It is the result of the influence of Chinese and other languages in Singapore on English - and the result is not pretty, to an international ear. Yet, there is great resistance, among many Singaporeans, to adopting a more internationalized version of English.

I think Singaporeans are unaware of how unintelligible Singlish actually is, to foreigners. This is where the problem lies: to them it is a perfectly comprehensible language. What they don't realize is that no-one outside of Singapore, Malaysia and Batam is likely to understand them. I will give you some examples to allow you to understand the problem.

There was a poster campaign some while back, when the government (briefly) promoted better English. These examples are taken from those posters, with official translations.

What does: "Got people sit one.", mean? Please have a good think about it.

Have you any idea, yet? No? Well, I will let you know, soon.

"Got people sit one" means: "Sorry this seat is taken" (or that would be what an English person would say in the same circumstances: I don't believe there is a "sorry" in the Singlish version.)

How about: "Like that also can, ah?" Have a think about it.

This is a phrase I have heard quite a few times.

"Like that also can, ah?" means: "How can this be acceptable?"

How about: "Die, die, must finish." Please think about it.

I, too, have heard this one and thought it rather strange.

"Die, die, must finish" means "We must finish this."

Singlish, at its best, is an impenetrable language to outside speakers of English. I have found myself completely unable to understand supposedly intelligent middle-aged Singaporeans, in business, when they spoke Singlish. No information was communicated by them, at all. Words were spoken, which were recognizable individually, but together meant nothing at all.

Singlish is a problem for Singapore, but it is a problem which is not really acknowledged. The campaign to speak better English failed, because there was no resolve among the people to speak better and because I don't think they have any examples of good speech to learn from (many politicians, for instance, speak noticeably badly). The campaign quietly went away - at least, nothing much has been heard from them, for some time.

Singlish is not just a spoken problem, it is a written problem. There are sites on the internet, written by Singaporeans, that are incomprehensible to a native speaker of English. This, of course, limits the reach of communication of Singaporeans to those who grew on up on this small island.

There is even resistance to adopting international standards of English, at the governmental level. I was once employed, for instance, to assist a Singaporean government department on the language use on a website - and there was resistance, from some of the government employees, to accept my corrections of their language. They argued that most of the readers of the site would be Singaporeans so the language should be what Singaporeans expect, irrespective of what correct usage would be. I found their view at odds with that expressed by other government departments on the language issue. It seems there is not even unity at the top, on the issue of the quality of language use in Singapore. There is not, therefore, much hope of change on the ground.

The funny thing about Singlish and its Singaporean speakers, is that I have sometimes found native Singaporeans correcting my language use, from standard English to Singlish...and being most insistent that I am wrong! (One memorable shop assistant said to me: "Why you speak slang, ah?") That this should happen indicates that not only are many Singaporeans not speakers of standard English - but that they do not even recognize it when they hear it. They are, therefore, not conversant in English but what amounts to a localized dialect of it.

Singapore is not, in short, an English speaking country, it is a Singlish speaking country with some English speakers in it (those whose English has, perhaps, benefitted from overseas exposure).

For non-Singaporeans only: were you able to work out the correct meanings of the Singlish samples I gave? What did you think they meant? Comments please - but no comments from Singlish speakers who would have known the answers, please. Thanks.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight months, 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:32 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haha. The sad thing is that most of us still continue to use it despite knowing it's wrong.

The fortunate thing is that some of us are able to code switch when required to.

I'm not against singlish, but rather it will be most useful if we can code switch to english to facilitate understanding to non-singaporeans

6:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You have raised a good point. If every Singaporean could "code switch" then it wouldn't be a problem. However, in my observation, there are a lot of Singaporeans who cannot code switch - and so are unable to speak effectively across cultures. This would seem to be a problem for such an export driven, international trade dependent nation as Singapore. I would have thought that being able to speak standard English would be a vital skill for the financial security and growth of Singapore, given the nature of its economy.

Thanks for raising this issue.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this post of yours with much delight. Thanks.

In case you are not aware, not only do Singaporeans speak Singlish, they also, to the same degree of incompetency and odd, speak SingChinese, SingMalay, perhaps too, SingTamil.

Want to know the reason why? This what I was told. Singaporeans do so, in an attempt to break their unbreakable 'walls' amongst themselves. The other reason is because they don't desire to be identified with their respective Mainlands.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your insightful comment.

It is strange that they don't want to be identified with their mainlands, because there are to be found most of the people who speak their language. Corrupting a tongue, doesn't make it any better.

The situation you speak of, means that Singaporeans are generally not even competent in one language, never mind two (which are they are marketed to be).

I wonder if there is anything that can be done to improve the linguistic quality here?

Best wishes

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Amused said...

Look at it another way:

I do not normally converse in Singlish, but when I do, there's this familiar feeling of "Ah, I'm in Singapore." It feels friendlier somewhow. Being an "outsider", maybe you can't feel it?

It could be that Singaporeans just want something to call their own. Indonesians have Bahasa Indonesia, Thai have Thai, Philliphines - Tagalog, and etc. I believe most nations have their own language, or at least a major version of a language - Australian English, Canadian English/French, etc. Not even *every* American born Americans speak English that's "legible" across the world.

Languages are alive. They change and evolve. The only languages that remain unchanged are dead ones - like Latin.

If you ask purists of the English language, they would claim that Americans don't speak English. They speak American. If they have their way, we'd all have to speak the Queen's English while having a cuppa tea aye?

2:38 PM  
Blogger soojenn said...

When you say Singlish is the version current among MOST Singaporeans, what is the basis of your assumptions? the people you mixed with, your spouse's immediate group? As Anon 6.54 indicated, most of the Singaporeans can code switch. I have no doubt of the abilities of the English educated Singaporeans who are able to do this.

Perhaps before you make this sweeping statement, you should have done more research as to the origins of Singlish, or at the least read the wikipedia which explains this at

That Singlish is unintelligible to western foreigners is because they do NOT understand the syntax of this version of the english. A Chinese speaker of english would be able to decipher most of the meanings of the phrase.

The phases you quoted are literally translated form the Cantonese version -
- "Got people sit one" is from "Yau Yan Chor"
-"Like that also can, a?" is from "Kam Yeung Tou Tak?"
- "Die, die mush finish" - is from "Sei, Sei, Tou You Chou Yuen"

Singlish is NOT impenetrable if you understand the origins, and therefore the syntax used, in this case a Southern Chinese language. Being a researcher and apparently intelligent writer, it would have been expected that you have researched this before you wrote this. Again, perhaps, this is only your view, which of course, you are entitled to. By the way, I am not condoning the use of Singlish as the national language for Singapore but to write of it in such a condescending manner is not helpful either. A curious question would be if you have Chinese friends or are they all of the Malay origin. Any Chinese person well versed in the English language would have been able to tell you the same thing which I have stated.

Intelligence has no relationship to the ability of a person being able to speak English instead of Singlish. Middle aged Singaporeans in business - do you happen to know if they are Chinese or English educated. I suppose this has never occured to you to try to understand? Most of the Singaporeans who are Chinese educated do not have a good command of the English language. Good expamples, like you have also indicated, include politicians. Low Thia Khiang is Chinese educated and admits freely that his command of the English language is poor. However most English educated Singaporeans are able to speak proper English. Lee Kuan Yew who graduated from Cambridge, is of course able to speak this eloquently, perhaps more than most of the speakers in the UK, where the English language is supposed to have originated?

By the way, English has also its versions - so which one are you using for discussion? Queen's english? cokney english, American english? they are all variations of the english language, and with pronounications that are sometimes unintelligible. Again, who are correcting your English?, the coffeeshop stalls below the HDB's? who? I for one, and believe that this includes a multitude of English educated Singaporeans would be able to recognize it when we hear it.

"Singapore is not, in short, an English speaking country, it is a Singlish speaking country with some English speakers in it (those whose English has, perhaps, benefitted from overseas exposure)."

It is interesting to understand how you arrive at this conclusion, who are the people you interact with? I could say the same for the UK, that I wonder if UK is an English speaking country. If you are in Liverpool, one wonders if the English language has really been originated by them?

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Etch said...

We Singaporeans are a pitiful lot when it comes to languages. Mainland Chinese folks look down on our poor command of Mandarin, and needless to say, Singlish is rarely understood by other English speaking people. And now even dialects are regarded as something we could do away with.

Well, anyway, I believe that most of Singlish comes from a series of direct translations from other languages compounded with multiple 'shortcuts', giving it the 'broken' feel. For e.g.: "Like that also can ah?" (there isn't a comma there when spoken) is directly translated from the mandarin phrase "这样也可以啊?" (which to my knowledge is correct, grammar-wise) in the following steps:
1)这样 = like that
2)也 = also
3)可以 = can
4)啊 = ah ('ah' is the way '啊' is pronounced in mandarin, I don't believe there is a proper translation for '啊' into English)

If you are wondering why would anyone use such a 'mis-translation', please consider that our forefathers received little education. Mixed together with various other ethnic groups in their subsequent days here, various forms of 'talk' or 'speak' (essentially these 'mis-translations') became common and has been so ever since, eventually evolving into what we come to know as Singlish now.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous emeraldiel said...

I think this is a problem when more than one language is used.

The examples that you've illustrated (except the last one) are actually the direct literal translation from chinese, meaning the vocab, sequence and sentence construction are correct when substituted with chinese words.

It's interesting to note that among my friends who speak English well actually suck at Chinese (and vice versa). And those who can use both English and mother tongue comfortably rarely excel in both.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The differences between American English and Queen's English are minimal, apart from accent. The differerences between Singlish and Queen's English are huge. There are so great that communication becomes very difficult/impossible at times. So, the comparison is not a fair one.

The test is communication. Singlish fails that test with natives of English, quite often.

I appreciate that it is familiar for Singaporeans...but it creates a bubble around a very small nation. You have to ask: is that healthy for Singapore?

5:21 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

That Soojenn, those phrases should be translated directly from Cantonese creates problems. No two languages directly translated are likely to be understood by native speakers of only one of those languages. That is the problem.

There is no need for further research of the issue. I speak as an English native who has encountered communication problems in Singapore. I speak therefore for all natives who would similarly encounter communication problems.

I do not know of the education of the businessmen - I only know of the result: they could not communicate in English effectively, though they were using English words. One of them was too young to have been Chinese educated, I would think. He was unintelligible at times, too.

You have attacked my intelligence...why would you want to do that? My comment is absolutely fair. It is the situation from an English native perspective - and one which any English native speaker from anywhere would encounter.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Etch.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, Soojenn, the origin of Singlish is not important to the discussion - what is important is the result of it: does it communicate internationally or not? The answer to that is an unfortunate no. You cannot expect native speakers of English to be familiar with the Cantonese structure etc that underlies it. Surely a native Singaporean of Chinese background is likely to be aware of this...but a native English speaker would not. That should be clear.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Emeraldiel. In an effort to acquire two languages, locals end up with neither being competent. It is an unfortunate compromise which affects the quality of communication in both languages I would imagine.

Thanks for your comment.

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Singlish or Singapore Colloquial English isn't comparable to American Standard English or the Queen's English. Utterances in Singlish was never really meant for the consumption of the outsider. It is an in-group language, comparable to say African American Vernacular English or Cockney.

There's nothing really wrong with Singlish. Most Singaporeans can code-switch well enough. Not every Singaporean can, nor is it necessary for every Singaporean to.

Who is to say there aren't native speakers of English in Singapore? I speak 4 different languages with various levels of comprehensibility, but I speak and think mainly in English. I understand Singlish perfectly well. I also quite happily pick up pieces of dialects and creoles from all over the world such as Indian English. I find nothing wrong with any of them.

Although it does annoy me when Singaporeans use 'slang' to mean 'accent'. Other things I'm happy to let slide, like pronouncing sword with the 'w', I just consider it part of the local accent, unless the offender in question is pretending to be superior by speaking 'standard'.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous xin- said...

I quote, "Singapore is not, in short, an English speaking country, it is a Singlish speaking country with some English speakers in it (those whose English has, perhaps, benefited from overseas exposure)."

As a Singaporean I resent the implication (that I interpreted) that Singapore is incapable of nurturing locals proficient in English who do not necessarily go overseas. Perhaps you just haven't met them yet.

In other aspects I do agree that the insistence on Singlish is stupid at best when communicating in an international arena. However, to deem it a lowly and useless dialect only reflects a sense of superiority. Not very good when you aren't already Singaporean, thanks.

Lastly, consider perhaps that Singaporeans are so protective of Singlish as part of their Singaporeanness, perhaps because other physical emblems (e.g. National Library, major landmarks, Tekka Market) are constantly eroded from the landscape.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you speaking from a linguist's point of view? Language is never static but always changing (across time and space).

I bet there are a lot of equally unintelligible versions of English spoken in England as well. Just watch EastEnders.

The only difference is that no one in Singapore has any false illusion about the purity of the language.

English is a mongrel language, it borrows and uses words from Latin, French, German ..even Hindi (Example: Shampoo is Hindi in origin).

If you look at all the 'English' words you know, you realise that a majority of it is foreign in origin.

English wasn't even created in England. It is Germanic in origin.

The true indigenous language of the Island are the Brythonic and Celtic languages but not English. If England can adopt this language, alter it and make it their own why not Singapore?

To assert otherwise smacks of colonial hypocrisy.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Relax Xin. No offence is meant: I am just raising an issue very obvious to foreigners: Singlish is pretty opaque to outsiders. I don't think it helps Singaporeans relate to the outside world. By all means use it among Singaporeans, if you wish...but then many people are not so good at learning two ways of speaking (just as they are not good at learning two languages). Thus that might not work.

Clearly, the decision is up the nation of Singapore. I am just giving a sometimes bewildered overseas impression of it.

This is not about superiority (and you are wrong to interpret in that way). It is about COMMUNICATION. I wouldn't want to speak in a way very few people understood, myself. However, if you want to do so, that is up to you.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Wow Skeptic...pretty strong language.

This has nothing to do with the origin of language or the change of language over time. It is nonsense to compare the origin of English to the origin of Singaporean English simply because the whole world is NOT going to learn Singlish. However, the whole world is trying to learn English (except for those who like Singlish so much).

Your misunderstanding of my intention is evidence perhaps that Singlish doesn't help international communication.

There is no colonial hypocrisy here...although you do seem to be showing a lot of protective touchiness over what is a version of English very few people understand outside of Singapore.

Would it not be better for Singapore if the version of English here were globally understood?

Again, as I have pointed out, the variations in English within mainstream countries are smaller than the differences that Singlish shows. Singlish is FAR out there.

Again, it is your choice. Speak Singlish if you can even speak it in New York and London. Perhaps then you will realize that it cannot be understood without a lot of exposure and experience.

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember your post about saving languages from being extinct.

Iceland, which has its own language, has far fewer people than Singapore. And foreigners cannot understand it either. Does that mean that if a language is not understood by english speaking nations, then it should be eradicated?

As what i have said early, the best way is code switching.
And building up on what the rest have said, Singapore is a unique place, because of our forefathers who spoke many different tongues. This resulted in a mixing of languages unlike other nations, where languages tend to be similar. So firstly, i'm not surprised at the development of Singlish, and secondly, dont you consider it exciting to see how this language develops? Some time last year, I read an article, which quoted a linguist from (i think) US or UK, who was very excited to see how languages develop and change- And he mentioned Singlish in particular.

But we still need to buck up on our code switching though, since not everyone is proficient in this skill.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anon at 7.32.

I am not arguing for the extinction of Singlish. I am however arguing that all Singaporeans should be proficient in Standard English. They are not.

No language should be lost. However, at this time, Singlish does not have the status of an independent language - it is a pot pourri of other grammatical structures directly translated into English. It is a "breaking" of English in that sense.

My point all along is that Singaporeans think that they speak English whereas many of them do not. They speak a local tongue that has no international communication value. The rest of the world is never going to learn Singlish. So the Singlish should try to speak English. Code switching is one possible approach. However, many people seem to need quite a bit of work on that one.

I hope that clarifies my position.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous ks said...

It would be nice to hear from a linguist on this issue. I wonder if Singlish is patois?

Many people seem to be missing the point in this post. You aren't talking about accent, dialect or the general pronunciation of words, but about the use of directly translated foreign words.

It doesn't matter who your friends are or from which 'race' they 'belong'. The poster who raised this issue has also unknowingly proved your point: if you are an English speaker, you'll need a translator to tell you the meanings of Singlish phrases.

Lastly, I, too have great difficulty communicating with people here, especially by phone. It is a frustrating experience to speak a language that I know as English, yet hear English words as a reply which have no meaning (and I'm not speaking about Singlish, but about 'standard' English spoken by educated people employed at dental clinics, doctor's offices, travel agents, etc.)

8:02 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you KS for understanding my essential point - and supporting it. Many of the posters here have taken my view as a personal insult (a bit strangely) and have responded in kind.

Singlish doesn't communicate to the greater part of the English speaking world. It is about time that Singaporeans really understood that. It would help them.

Kind regards

8:49 AM  
Blogger teal said...

Having read your very interesting blog post, I have to say it really spoke to my experience. I know you posted it 2 years ago but I hope you'll read this.

Having been educated overseas in a native English-speaking country, I came back and found myself in a workplace predominantly staffed by locally educated singaporeans.

Despite all my efforts to be as polite and unassuming as possible, they seized upon my accent and use of standard English as evidence of my arrogance and disdain for locals. It's basically the herd mentality and "tall poppy syndrome" gone wild. Two reasons are usually given for speaking Singlish:

1. It's more "efficient"
2. It's less confusing

Reason 1 is basically a misunderstanding among many locals that fewer words mean more efficient communcation, neglecting the fact that having to repeat yourself or worse, do something you assumed was asked for only to redo it due to a miscommunication is far more INEFFICIENT! I have seen this happen more than a few times, where things have to be repeated and rephrased just so everyone understands.

Reason 2 is simply evidence that many Singaporeans have so little exposure to standard English they find it strange and confusing.

So don't worry about the people who refuse to see the current sad state of English in Singapore, there are locals like myself who agree with you.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Teal for your supportive comment. I think you are in a good position, with your overseas experience, to see how sorry Singlish is, as a means of global communication.

As you will have noted, many Singaporeans rushed to the defence of Singlish, in a rather proud and touchy manner. I find their reaction interesting. They are, after all, defending what is, in fact, a weakness of Singapore on the global stage. When I first came to Singapore, Singlish was, at times, completely opaque to me. I had no idea what people were trying to say - but their chosen structures did seem hilarious at times. Singlish is OK as internal communication...but as an actual global language: hopeless.

You are right. Fewer words does not mean more "efficient", it just means more ambiguity and chance of misunderstanding. Also, it is ridiculous to say that Singlish is "less confusing" is, to true English speakers, extremely confusing indeed. The argument over confusion just shows unfamiliarity with true English, that is all.

I met quite a few people in Singapore who were arrogant about their command of language. I thought this very strange, since judged from an international perspective they had nothing to be arrogant about. I had a very dismissive encounter with the head of Mediacorp drama, when I tried to offer him voiceovers on his Channel because the existing voiceovers frequently had pronunciation errors: he would have none of it and just wouldn't listen at all. His announcers were mangling relatively common words. No doubt, they still do.

If Singapore still wants to be relevant in fifty years time, it would do well to adopt standard English. If it wants to be an inward looking, and probably as a result, somewhat impoverished and crowded little island, carry on emphasizing Singlish.

I hope Teal you find your way into a position where your command of English will be of value: something involving international contact.

Good luck.

3:59 PM  

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