Of Death & Language

If I die in Singapore, it will be because I:

  • Failed to look the correct direction for incoming traffic (they drive on the “wrong” side of the road here; 
  • Slipped on one of the insanely slippery sidewalk tiles that they seem to lay down everywhere (though someone of importance must know that they’re slippery and that it rains all the time here); or
  • Underestimated the enthusiasm of drivers to charge out of driveways without looking for pedestrians or other obstacles. 

Aside from those risks, I think I’m safe. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about languages since we arrived here. There are four national languages in Singapore: English, Tamil, Chinese, and Malay. Here’s an introduction to what they look like written down (should you want to start your language classes by learning to translate emergency warning signs from the MRT):


Let’s take these one at a time, starting with English. Signs and official documents are all written, first and foremost, in English. It’s usually the Queen’s English (think zebra crossings and lifts and holidays). Autocorrect desperately wants to change my “realize” and “counselor” and “color.”  But if you’re from the US and you want to go around reading things, you’re in fine shape. 

That said, it turns out that you’d be in a much better position if you spoke Chinese (Mandarin, to be more specific). Lots of people with whom you might want to interact — real estate agents, the nice man at the mobile phone store, lots of checkout clerks — speak Chinese as a first language. Accents are often significant, and we find ourselves doing a lot of, “excuse me?” and, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  I’ll note that the Singapore government is trying to encourage the teaching of Chinese in schools (after having tried very hard to repress it for much of the twentieth century), because Han Chinese make up the largest percentage of Singapore’s population, and the theory nowadays is that you should try to keep all ethnic groups happy (read: docile). 

The Singapore government tried to get everyone to learn Malay in the 1960s when Singapore was merging with Malaya (now Malaysia), but they scrapped that plan within five years of its inception.  Now plenty of people speak Malay, but Malaysians are seen by many Singaporeans as a sort of underclass. I’m still trying to figure out the race issues here. Anyway, I’m not sure I know Malay well enough to recognize it being spoken anywhere beyond subway announcements, but I hope that will change. 

Tamil seems to have the smallest presence here, but that could be a misperception on my part. The written language is elegantly beautiful. 

Then there’s Singlish — and wow, that would be really useful to know. It’s a kind of pidgin that includes words like “lah” and “lor” a lot.  It uses very short sentences. And when people speak it — and lots do — we find ourselves getting completely lost. 

The greatest language frustrations for us have all been on the telephone. People speak very rapidly (requests to slow down are met with, “oh yes, miss,” and then more speaking at the same brisk speed). This has made our fruitless search for wifi all the more frustrating. 

All of that said, it’s very easy (unless you want to get wifi installed in your apartment) to get around with English in Singapore. Pres says he’s interested in learning Mandarin, which is probably smart, but we’re doing fine so far with our plain old American communications. 

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