I was posed an interesting question the other day by one of the participants in the Present with Impact workshop: “Is Singlish an OK form of English to use in business?”
The question took me back to when I completed my TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualification where we were always discussing the many varieties of English and the importance of people using correct grammar. It was the ongoing question: what was correct grammar? With so many varieties, why is British English more correct than American English? Now, being a bit of a purist (at least back then) and a proud English woman (still am), I was always a fan of correct grammar and using British English as the reference: no ‘z’ in analyse, no ‘u’ in colour and ‘aluminium’ has two ‘i’s. You get the picture.
I have to be totally honest, when I first arrived in Singapore I cringed when I first heard Singlish. It confused me, it irritated me and I had to stop myself correcting colleagues. But 10 years later, and having had the opportunity to work with language experts such as Heather Hansen and Shirley Taylor to understand the importance of global English, and ‘letting go’ of some of my purist tendencies, I listen to Singlish now with ease and familiarity and it makes me smile. And yes, I even know the difference between lah, leh and lor!
Before we throw caution to the wind though and abandon all structure and form, let’s think about what grammar actually is: Grammar brings structure to a language; it is the set of rules present in every language that dictate how words should be used, the forms they should take and the order they should be placed in. These rules or ‘system’ include syntax (how words combine into phrases), morphology (the formation of words), phonology (study of sounds in isolation), and semantics (the science of meaning in language forms). Hence it forms the base of all language; with each language having it’s own system and grammatical structure. In some languages it can be very complex and English is one example and it is essential to understand the rules to be able to communicate effectively.
Grammar determines how sentences are structured, for example, that auxiliary verbs (e.g. will) come before main verbs (e.g. arrive) in affirmative sentences.
Grammar also tells us which word form should be used and when. This knowledge of how words change and the different forms they have is called ‘morphology’ and literally means ‘the study of change.’ Words change their form to express different meanings whether it’s to denote how many of something there are, whether something happened in the past or present, and who something happened to. Understanding morphology is essential to having a full grasp of a language – for example knowing the different forms of ‘drink’ (drank, drunk); knowing the comparative and superlative forms of ‘quick’ (quicker and quickest), and knowing that this can also be in an irregular form e.g. for ‘good’ it is ‘better’, and ‘best’.
There are many examples of grammatical choices we make when using English and native speakers will tend to just know these rules with no true understanding of why a sentence is structured in a certain way. Grammar brings depth and variety of meaning to what would otherwise just be a jumble of words.
So, Grammar definitely has a place. Now to the question of whether Singlish has a place in business? The short answer for me is “yes”. English is a complex language to learn and with so many native speakers not having a true grammatical understanding of their own language it begs the question why it is important for everyone else to learn the correct grammar and apply it in all conversations. Humans are lazy and look for shortcuts, (otherwise known as being efficient and productive) and we are lazy with how we speak. We have colloquial phrases and “schwas” that are created when a vowel is shortened that are a natural part of speaking English with proficiency. Why use four words, (“Yes, that is possible”) when just one will do: “Can”.
However, use Singlish with caution. If you have people in your team who new to Singapore, never been to Singapore, are not native speakers of English then dust off that vocab book and brush up on the grammar. As I mentioned to my colleague in the Present with Impact workshop, the fundamental thing is to be understood: communicate inclusively and consciously so that everyone in your team can understand, not just the select few.