I moved to Singapore from Australia in late 2014 (one reason for the rather long gap in my blog posts, sorry!). And language has been one of the biggest changes. With just our English and a smattering of French, my family is the minority here. Singapore has four official languages, and then all the expat workers and visitors speak their home language. Just in my building, the residents speak German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, multiple Chinese languages, Arabic and Swedish. Oh, and English (with Aussie, English and American tweaks).
English is everywhere in Singapore, but only as a tool, not as a socio-cultural construct. In other words, when people in a conversation here speak different languages, they can usually get by if they revert to English. Most people seem to know enough English to make themselves understood, and to understand what someone else is trying to say. Which makes English a bit of a default position when people are struggling to communicate.
So, from thinking about English in terms of expression and technique, I have come to this multilingual country where English has no pure form. Ironically, one of the Singapore Government buildings displays banners that promote correct spelling and define parts of speech—a visible effort to be ‘correct’. But every day I see and hear English being used just to understand and be understood. People don’t uphold the English language here; they hang onto it as a desperate last attempt to communicate. And they entwine it with the words and syntax of their home languages.
What results is the relief that two people feel when they conquer a language barrier and actually communicate. I feel that relief every day when I talk to people in my community, whether they be my Italian neighbours, a Singaporean taxi driver or my children’s Malaysian school bus driver. Believe me, I twist and turn my English into whatever it takes for me to make sense to the other person. And they do the same to talk to me.
So why, in Australia, are we so caught up with making our ESL workers conform to our ‘right’ English? I have a new baseline: so long as what someone says makes sense, the English can be unorthodox. So long as the message is true and clear, the English can sound ‘not right’.
Next time you hesitate about the ESL writing of a colleague or someone you manage at work, first ask yourself whether you easily get what they’re saying. If you do, then think about whether there is benefit from giving feedback on their English. Would it actually help? And definitely check whether the person wants to know more about English before you wade in with a tutorial. As I’ve learned, all we know about English only has value in some places and on some occasions. Elsewhere, and at other times, English is just a last resort.