Is Singlish bad for your child’s English? Debunking dialect myths with a language expert

HoneyKids Asia speaks to Dr Leher Singh, the director at Infant and Child Language Centre at NUS, about the use of Singlish among kids growing up in Singapore.

You and the family have recently moved to Singapore, the little ones have started at school, and everyone’s finally settled down. Then one day, the munchkins come home from school and you hear it: “It’s liddat, lah.” This simple utterance of Singlish emerges from their mouth. One reaction is to silently cringe as you scratch your head wondering where they picked it up from.

Singlish, an informal, colloquial version of English that borrows heavily from Chinese and Malay, is used in daily life here: from communicating to the taxi uncle to asking a staff member at the supermarket where to find a tin of Milo. But is it really worth stressing over your child’s use of it and does it impede language development? 

We spoke to Dr Leher Singh, the Director at Infant and Child Language Centre at NUS, to get the lowdown on the use of Singlish in kids growing up in Singapore. “The research shows children are capable of learning two forms of a language, or dialects, such as standard English and Singlish,” she says. Here, she addresses some common concerns and questions. 

Why does my child use Singlish when we don’t speak any Singlish at home?

Children often begin to use local dialects to fit into their school environment, to build relationships with peers and to sustain friendships with others who use Singlish. It doesn’t take long for children to pick up a local dialect. Speaking a dialect can grant children ‘social membership’ into a friendship group or social activity. It is a good way to ‘break in’ to a new environment and gives children a tool for communication with others.

Over time, children switch back and forth between standard English and Singlish. However, just like with every aspect of language development, there are occasional stumbles along the way, which should not cause alarm among parents. When children learn dialects like Singlish alongside standard English, they use the same brain power as they use to learn two languages, like English and German. Children are therefore as well-equipped to learn two dialects of English as they are to learn two languages.

I’m worried my child will lose touch with the rules of English if they speak Singlish. Isn’t Singlish just ‘bad English’?

Linguists used to think non-standard dialects were ‘bad’ or incorrect versions of standard English and that using a dialect would lead to a deficit in standard English. We now know that view is outdated and inaccurate.

Dialects have their own rules and often have as much linguistic structure as standard English. They are not ‘bad versions’ of a standard language but, rather, they are separate linguistic systems. The rules are different with Singlish because it borrows structures from the heritage languages of Singapore, like Mandarin Chinese; not because they omit aspects of English grammar haphazardly.

Over time, assuming children regularly use both standard English and in Singlish, there’s no evidence their English will suffer. It’s true that children sometimes use Singlish when the situation calls for standard English and vice versa. But children also sometimes confuse how their own language is used appropriately in a given context (like using their ‘outside voice’ in the classroom). Many aspects of children’s language use requires some fine-tuning in the early years. What’s important for learning standard English is that children have regular interaction in standard English, but not that they only interact in standard English. There is no evidence that children who receive exposure to both standard English and Singlish do worse on their mastery of standard English.

Are there any benefits to learning Singlish?

The answer to this is yes and no. On one hand, studies show there are cognitive advantages from learning two languages. There doesn’t seem to be the same advantages (but nor are there cognitive disadvantages) to learning two dialects. On the other hand, one important aspect of communication – seeing things through the eyes of others (also called ‘perspective-taking’) – gets better from hearing different types of language. Studies show us that children who are in more linguistically diverse environments have more opportunity to exercise their perspective-taking abilities. Children with better perspective-taking abilities go onto have better social skills and are more effective communicators.

Thanks, Dr Singh!

f you and your little one would like to participate in the research in bilingualism, the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre conducts many studies on language development. They are currently looking for monolingual and bilingual participants between one month and four years. The studies are short and fun for kids. Each child receives a gift, a certificate, a graduation photo, a free language or cognitive assessment, and transportation reimbursement. Feel free to sign up online or contact them via email at infantlanguagecentre@nus.edu.sg or Facebook.

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