Is Singapore the future of language?

Wrapping up a few days of meetings in Singapore, I am reminded of what I enjoy about this place. It’s not just the fantastic street food or the irony-free government pronouncements on the “commuter graciousness index.” No, what I really appreciate is its peculiar linguistic environment. Many Singaporeans are native speakers of both Mandarin Chinese and English–but my Singaporean friends sometimes complain that they feel like they cannot speak either language “properly.”

I think this is partly because the true native linguistic environment for Singaporeans (the ethnic Chinese majority anyway) is neither Chinese nor English but the combination of the two. One aspect of this is the delightful Singaporean dialect Singlish which merges features of both Chinese and English (I had understood Singlish as mainly English vocabulary spoken with mainly Chinese word order, with an overlay of Malay loan words, but the incredible Wikipedia article on Singlish makes clear that was a drastic oversimplification). Another aspect of it is the broad assumption that most people are bilingual, which means that cross-linguistic Chinese-English puns are an unexceptional part of mass culture. One exhibit from this trip: the advertising slogan “Make the 饭 fun” (the Chinese character 饭, pronounced fan, means cooked rice and is a metonym for the whole meal and food in general).

Rather than being pure denizens of one linguistic world, Singaporeans reside, occasionally uncomfortably, in two. As a native English speaker who lives in China and speaks Chinese at home, being uncomfortably poised between two languages is pretty much the story of my life. So that’s why I find Singapore strangely comfortable–because I’m suddenly surrounded by many more people who are in my situation.

And if we think that the world of the future will be largely dominated by the superpowers of America and China, which seems to be the way things have been heading lately, then this kind of English-Chinese bilingualism could become much, much more common. This was one of the fun aspects of the future imagined in the wonderful science-fiction TV show Firefly, in which the characters occasionally tossed snippets of Chinese (without subtitles or explanation) into otherwise normal English dialogue. I enjoyed the show a lot but this part of it could have been better handled: the actors’ Chinese pronunciation was so poor that it was difficult to understand what they were saying. More subtly, the way the characters used Chinese phrases was too arbitrary and not true to the way this happens in real life among bilingual people. For a masterclass in the language of the future, Joss Whedon should have gone to Singapore.

One Comment

  1. I’m not so sure that the world is going to turn into Firefly. I had the same reaction to that show, and my language situation is the same as yours, so there’s a lot I agree with here. But I don’t expect bilingual puns to become common. English speakers have never been much into punning with foreign languages – a little bit of French, but it never really became a part of the linguistic landscape. And even in China, dropping Englidh words into your conversation isn’t as ubiquitous as it sometimes seems. Outside the offices of multinationals, it’s only pretentious people who do it. I think Singapore is a pretty unique case.


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