woensdag 19 december 2012

Singaporeans do things differently: Speaking English

I am the proud owner of a Certificate in Gateway to Mandarin Level 1. This means that I have exactly zero ability to speak Mandarin, but at least it'll get me into Level 2 and maybe then I will finally master the second or "surprised" tone.

(I tried to tell a Chinese friend I was happy to see her, a sentence which includes the word "renshi" or "getting to know", and I discovered today that if mispronounced "renshi" might also mean "buying and selling people". Which, I suppose, explains her horrified expression.)

However - lack of practical ability notwithstanding, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly and intuitively I managed to grasp the grammar and sentence structure.

I blame this on Singlish, the local variety of English, which E. is rapidly mastering and I more slowly am getting to grips with. 

"Just put lah at the end of every sentence", people'll tell you if you ask about Singlish. That certainly helps, just as tacking on "like" at the end of your sentence will make you sound Irish, whereas slipping "like" into the middle and pausing will make you sound like you emerged from nineties-era Los Angeles. There are some very common Malay and Chinese words that get mixed into Singaporean English as well, such as atas for snobby or tai tai for rich housewives, and some lovely local expressions such as blur, meaning a bit vague, not all there, and catch no ball for "I don't understand". 

But there's more to Singlish. The grammar is different too. (Which actually could qualify it as an official language, I believe, if anybody would take the trouble to elevate its status. But we're not in the European Union anymore, Toto.) 

The most obvious form of this grammatical difference to expats is the "can" and "cannot" substitutes for "yes" and "no". However, a lot of verbs carry their own versions of "no" - "want" comes with "don't want", "have" comes with "don't have" - which is exactly the way it works in Mandarin. 

In Singlish, questions are often formed by taken a statement and substituting "what" or "where" for the thing that is being asked for: "You go where?" ("I'm going to Orchard Road") or "You buy what?" ("I'd like to buy some pumpkin, please"). Again, this is exactly as laoshi (teacher) taught us to build sentences in Mandarin class. 

Now it turns out that my valiant attempts at getting to grips with the local lingo has actually prepared the groundworks for learning Mandarin - the language I always sort of hid away from, thinking it too difficult to even think about attempting it (and neither Level 1 nor Level 2 does anything with characters or proper reading yet, it's all conversational). 

It's not that I am a language genius (I never did master the subjunctive in Spanish, leading my Bolivian friends to think that I am a very serious type person, I mumble my way through German declinations and the last time I even attempted to speak French the French person kindly answered in Spanish). 

It's just that I have this strange aptitude when it comes to English to pick up accents and colloquialisms almost subconsciously (I cannot for the life of me do an accent in Dutch, not even my own regional one). Non-native speakers aren't supposed to do able to do this, but I think my brain got re-wired during my toddlerhood in Singapore, where, apparently, I navigated deftly among Dutch, English, basic Tagalog and a smattering of, yes, Mandarin in daily life. 

I forgot all of that as soon I crossed the treshold to our new Dutch home. (Well, not the Dutch, obviously.)

But in a roundabout way my ease with and love for the English language has made learning Mandarin a bit easier. Now I just need to find somebody to teach me proper Singlish vocabulary, so I can actually talk to people.

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