Singapore’s language battle: American vs ‘the Queen’s English’
Known as a country in Southeast Asia with a highly educated workforce, Singapore is also one of the only countries in the region that uses English as a working language, and as a medium of instruction in schools. The ease of communication has established the country as the headquarters in Asia for many multinational companies.
A report by the Educational Testing Services (ETS) based on data from Jan-Dec 2010 shows that Singapore came in third in TOEFL (The Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores out of 163 countries. It is the only Asian country in the top three.
However, students in Singapore are taught in British English, or ‘the Queen’s English’, since elementary school. To Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, this poses a serious and imminent challenge.
According to Channel NewsAsia, Lee said:
“There is an intense worldwide competition for talent, especially for English-speaking skilled professionals, managers and executives. Our English-speaking environment is one reason why Singapore has managed to attract a number of these talented individuals to complement our own talent pool.
“They find it easy to work and live in Singapore, and remain plugged into the global economy. Singapore is a popular educational choice for many young Asians who want to learn English, and they get a quality education. This has kept our city vibrant.”
Mr Lee said one of the challenges ahead is to decide whether to adopt British English or American English.
He said: “I think the increasing dominance of the American media means that increasingly our people, teachers and students will be hearing the American version, whether it is ‘potatoes’ or ‘tomatoes’. They will be the dominant force through sheer numbers and the dominance of their economy.
“I believe we will be exposed more and more to American English and so it might be as well to accept it as inevitable and to teach our students to recognise and maybe, to even speak American English.”
Lee added that “communication skills” will be one of the most valuable qualities to possess in the twenty-first century.
Be it fashion, music, food or movies, American popular culture has had a pervasive influence on Singaporean society, as the adoption of the American slang has made its way to the lexicon of Singapore English. However, in official documents, and even in text messages, British spelling is used. Yet, a good command of English is a good command of English, regardless of whether it is written in British spelling or spoken with an American accent. Perhaps American investors will appreciate an American accent when speaking to Singaporean businessmen, but Americans have long done business with their British counterparts who have thick British accents. To be able to be understood by the other party is still what remains the most imperative.