Breaking the code

Many languages being spoken

I eavesdrop a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t press my ear to people’s doors or tap cellphones like the Australian spy agencies did to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife. I eavesdrop when I’m moving about in public and people are having conversations openly and very audibly. So I just listen and observe with no guilt.

The other day I listened in on a conversation between three teenagers who truly epitomised Singaporean linguistic habits. Singaporeans do not just code-switch a lot (switching from one language to another). They code-mix too, jumbling two, three or even more languages and dialects into each sentence.

Here’s a small sample of what the teens said:

我的 friend

你可以选 day 的吗?

Given our socio-cultural milieu, it is perfectly understandable that Singaporeans speak in such a linguistically multifarious manner. We are multicultural, schooled in a bilingual education system and live in a gateway between East and West. However, if we entertain any hopes at all of mastering a language, any language, we need to curb our code-mixing tendencies. I would strongly encourage all students to purify their language, that is, to try to speak in a less linguistically mixed way but in purer English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, or whatever language you speak. And even when we code-mix, let us try not to mix too much or too recklessly. There is a fine line between a rich, diverse blend of languages and a dreadful, disjointed, uncultured mess.

Hence the aforementioned teenagers could perhaps consider saying what they said in pure English or Chinese, ie

My friend said…

Can you choose the day?

Diversity in language can be rich and colourful, but purity is important too. Just as you wouldn’t recklessly mix different kinds of food together (imagine dipping a prata into a bowl of sliced fish soup), you shouldn’t recklessly mix languages together either. Language is a cultural treasure, formed in the crucible of centuries of human culture, creativity, thought and refinement. We must respect it.


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About gptuitionsg

A dedicated English and GP tutor with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, Steven Ooi retired from the profession after a 14-year career during which he was one of the most sought-after private tutors in Singapore. He is the recipient of the Minerva Prize from NUS, which is awarded to the top English Language honours student of each cohort. This website, which has consistently ranked among the top 10 on Google and has received over 530,000 hits, has now been converted into a GP resource site cum listing of recommended tutors. If you are a GP or English tutor who wishes to be listed here, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ (remove the spaces). Interested parties will be assessed and interviewed by him, and qualifications will be checked. These procedures are necessary to uphold quality standards. DISCLAIMER: While every reasonable effort has been made to assess the competence and verify the qualifications of recommended tutors here, no guarantees are made and you engage them at your own risk. By using this website, you agree that you will not hold the webmaster Steven Ooi responsible for any consequences — direct or otherwise — that occur in relation with your use of this website.
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3 Responses to Breaking the code

  1. Mr Seah says:

    I’ve lost count of the number of times this has happened –>

    Student: I not speaking English, meh?
    Teacher: *deep breath*

  2. Pingback: Mr Seah (dotcom!) | Singlish and Singaporean Education

  3. Pingback: Mr Seah (dotcom!) | The Problem With Singlish and Singaporean Education

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