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.
Feeling nostalgic for a journalistic era I never experienced, I recently read Tom Wolfe’s 1968 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I’d been warned that the New Journalists slathered their prose with slang, so I wasn’t shocked to find nonstandard English on nearly every line: dig, trippy, groovy, grok, heads, hip, mysto and, of course, cool. This psychedelic time capsule led me to wonder about the relative stickiness of all these words—the omnipresence of cool versus the datedness of groovy and the dweeb cachet of grok, a Robert Heinlein coinage from Stranger in a Strange Land literally signifying to drink but implying profound understanding. Mysto, an abbreviation for mystical, seems to have fallen into disuse. It doesn’t even have an Urban Dictionary entry.
There’s no grand unified theory for why some slang terms live and others die. In fact, it’s even worse than that: The very definition of slang is tenuous and clunky. Writing for the journal American Speech, Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter argued in 1978 that slang must meet at least two of the following criteria: It lowers “the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing,” it implies that the user is savvy (he knows what the word means, and knows people who know what it means), it sounds taboo in ordinary discourse (as in with adults or your superiors), and it replaces a conventional synonym. This characterization seems to open the door to words that most would not recognize as slang, including like in the quotative sense: “I was like … and he was like.” It replaces a conventional synonym (said), and certainly lowers seriousness, but is probably better categorized as a tic.
At least it’s widely agreed that young people, seeking to make a mark, are especially prone to generating such dignity-reducing terms. (The editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Tom Dalzell, told me that “every generation comes up with a new word for a marijuana cigarette.”) Oppressed people, criminals, and sports fans make significant contributions, too. There’s also a consensus that most slang, like mysto, is ephemeral. Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, has been collecting slang from her students since the early 1970s. (She asks them to write down terms heard around campus.) In 1996, when she reviewed all the submissions she’d received, she found that more than half were only turned in once. While many words made it from one year to the next, only a tiny minority lasted a decade.
When asked for an example of an expression that fizzled out quickly, Eble cited “a dangling modifier,” meaning a single earring. (As in, “you know that dude with the skateboard, the one with the dangling modifier?”) Eble guesses that “dangling modifier” didn’t survive because it was too clever. She also recalled that, in the 1970s and 1980s, she encountered a slew of drunkenness-related phrases that were similarly too complex, such as a pair of terms for vomiting into a toilet, “drive the porcelain bus” and “talk to Ralph on the big white phone.” (I’ve heard that last one, actually, but from a friend who’s fond of sounding odd.)
In that same 1996 review, Eble found that the 40 most frequently submitted slang words could often be classified as judgments of acceptance or rejection. There were several synonyms for excellent, including sweet, killer, bad, cool, and awesome. Conversely, she noted a few expressions meaning a “socially inept person:” dweeb, geek, turkey. Another positive indicator is brevity. Eble said short words fare well (cool, bad, sweet, geek), and that oohs and other back-of-the-mouth noises tend to crop up (cool, tool, groove, booze).
For a slang term to really succeed, it also helps to have influential proponents. Michael Adams, the editor of American Speech, reminded me of a recurring joke in Mean Girls: Gretchen wants to introduce fetch as slang (to mean, pretty much, awesome), but clique leader Regina won’t have it. “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen,” she says, “It’s not going to happen.”
And it doesn’t happen, because Gretchen’s not the kind of girl who inspires imitation. If, however, someone with real social pull starts using a word, or if it’s thrown around approvingly in a film, it’s given a boost: Clueless helped disseminate whatever.
Even if it has a famous supporter, though, a slang word’s long-term survival is more the exception than the rule. Mysto, for one, died out swiftly despite being a short, easily understood word that was evidently tossed around by the Merry Pranksters before getting recorded by Tom Wolfe.
Once a word gets to the level of general understanding, it’s still subject to caprice. Groovy, which dates back to the 1930s, became fashionable in the 1940s, then unfashionable, then fashionable again in the 1960s. Now everyone knows what it means, but if you use it you either have long, gray hair and wear tie-dye or you’re mocking the sort of people who have long, gray hair and wear tie-dye. Groovy got stuck, and though it’s possible that it’ll make a comeback, for now it feels coupled to a particular time. Yet cool in the excellent sense—popularized by jazz musicians in the 1940s—isn’t tainted in this way. No one says cool with the expectation that Charlie Parker will come to mind.
Perhaps cool has been more durable than groovy because it’s an ordinary word in addition to a slang word. It’s unobtrusive, which Adams also mentioned as a positive indicator of slang tenacity. Maybe the gr and vee sounds in groovy, which are rather harsh, are what keep it from seeming natural, and association-less, in conversation.
The only way to test that these theories are more than post-facto justifications is to apply them to newish slang words. Scrolling through newly added Urban Dictionary entries, I came across: La Slosha (“A woman whose awesomeness and attractiveness is only surpassed by her ability to consume copious quantities of vodka coke,” added Aug, 8); Txtnesia (“When you forget what you texted someone last,” added July 31); and Boones (“One or more hipsters that are idiotic and talk in hipster slang,” added Aug, 2). It seems to me that Boones has the best chance to survive: It’s short, contains an ooh, expresses a social judgment, and isn’t too complicated. It also strikes me as rather useful. Let’s see what happens.
On a sweltering August morning, in a classroom overlooking New York’s Hudson River, a group of 3-year-olds are rolling sticky rice balls in chocolate sprinkles, as a teacher guides them completely in Mandarin.
This is just one toddler learning game at the total–immersion language summer camp run by the primary school Bilingual Buds, which offers a year-round curriculum in Mandarin as well as Spanish (at a New Jersey campus) for kids as young as 2.
Bilingualism, of course, can be a leg up for college admission and a résumé burnisher. But a growing body of research now offers a further rationale: the regular, high-level use of more than one language may actually improve early brain development.
According to several different studies, command of two or more languages bolsters the ability to focus in the face of distraction, decide between competing alternatives, and disregard irrelevant information. These essential skills are grouped together, known in brain terms as “executive function.” The research suggests they develop ahead of time in bilingual children, and are already evident in kids as young as 3 or 4.
While no one has yet identified the exact mechanism by which bilingualism boosts brain development, the advantage likely stems from the bilingual’s need to continually select the right language for a given situation. According to Ellen Bialystok, a professor at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher in the field, this constant selecting process is strenuous exercise for the brain and involves processes beyond those required for monolingual speech, resulting in an extra stash of mental acuity, or, in Bialy-stok’s terms, a “cognitive reserve.”
Bilingual education, commonplace in many countries, is a growing trend across the United States, with 440 elementary schools (up from virtually none in 1970) offering immersion study in Spanish, Mandarin, and French, in that order of popularity.
For parents whose toddlers can’t read Tolstoy in the original Russian, the research does offer some comfort: Tamar Gollan, a professor at University of California, San Diego, has found a vocabulary gap between children who speak only one language and those who grow up with more. On average, the more languages spoken, the smaller the vocabulary in each one. Gollan’s research suggests that while that gap narrows as children grow, it does not close completely.
The rule of thumb for improving in any language is simple practice. “The more you use it, the better off you are,” Gollan says. “Vocabulary tests, SATs, GREs—those are tests that probe the absolute limits of your ability, and that’s where we find that bilinguals have the disadvantage, where you know the word but you just can’t get it out.”
Gollan believes this deficit can be compensated for with extra study. A more complicated question is how and whether bilingualism may interact with other cognitive issues that can appear in early childhood, specifically attention disorders, says Bialystok. Because attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is linked to compromised executive functioning, it is unclear what impact learning a second language—which calls upon exactly these executive skills—might have on children with this condition. Research on this question is underway.
Some of the most valuable mental perks of bilingualism can’t be measured at all, of course. To speak more than one language is to inherit a global consciousness that opens the mind to more than one culture or way of life.
Bilinguals also appear to be better at learning new languages than monolinguals. London-based writer Clarisse Lehmann spent her early childhood in Switzerland speaking French. At 6, she learned English. Later she learned Spanish, German, and, during three years spent living in Tokyo, Japanese.
“There’s a witty humor in English that has a different sensibility in French,” she says. “And in Japanese, there’s no sarcasm. When I tried, it would be ‘We don’t understand what you’re trying to say.’?”
With five languages under her belt—and a working familiarity with Latin and Greek as well—Lehmann finally considers herself sufficiently multilingual. “Enough, enough!” she says. “I don’t want to learn any more languages.”
Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn’t like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England “in battalions.” He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films.
Engel’s tirade against the American “faze, hospitalise, heads-up, rookie, listen up” and “park up” got several million page views (or page impressions, as the Brits seem to call them), along with thousands of comments, when it appeared in the BBC News Magazine.
But like many critics of Americanisms, Engel got some of his facts wrong. True, the U.S. may be influencing the spread of English as a world language today, but it was British imperialism, not American, that set English on the path to world domination.
Plus, a few of the words Engel complains about aren’t even Americanisms. The first OED citations for hospitalize (so spelled), heads up, and rookie are British, not American, and if the OED and Google are any indication, “park-up,” unheard of stateside, seems to be solely a Briticism, an unnecessary alternative to simply saying park, as in “Park-Up.com finds the cheapest parking for you” in London and Brighton.
As is fitting for a Financial Times writer, Engel acknowledges that there’s a kind of linguistic marketplace where languages trade words the same way that their speakers trade goods and services, but he sees the balance of trade as seriously tipped in favor of the ugly Americanism.
Engel also praises the English for encouraging “the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic—even Cornish is making a comeback.” But the status of Welsh and Gaelic is still bitterly contested, not just in England but also in Wales and the Six Counties, and although some Brits grudgingly accept diversity when it’s home-grown rather than imported, Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent assertion that British multiculturalism has failed and the new government policy that requires immigrants to prove they can speak English before coming to England reveal, not a sense that English is a big tent with room for all, but a growing strain of linguistic nativism.
It should surprise no one that the Brits have been complaining about Americanisms since they first came to America. The word Americanism was actually coined in 1781 by John Witherspoon, a Scot who relocated to New Jersey and became the first president of Princeton.
Americanism, the word coined by John Witherspoon in 1781, was one of the first Americanisms. According to Witherspoon, even “persons of rank and education” used Americanisms.
Witherspoon intended his new word to be neutral: an Americanism was simply “an use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences” that differed from British usage. He coined it on the analogy of Scotticism,a term of insult that goes back to the 17th century. Witherspoon tried to treat Scotticism as a neutral term as well, though as he did so he acknowledged that “the Scottish manner of speaking came to be considered as provincial barbarism; which, therefore, all scholars are now at the utmost pains to avoid.”
Witherspoon notes that Scotticism shouldn’t be a negative term, though he also says that Scotticisms have come to be considered barbarous, even by the Scots.
Some of Witherspoon’s best friends were Americans, and he saw that in light of American independence, and in the course of time, American English could be expected to diverge from the language of England and develop its own standards. But while he waited for this to happen, Witherspoon found many American errors and improprieties to complain about.
Witherspoon published his essay on the errors and improprieties of Americanisms in the Pennsylvania Journal on May 9, 1781. Some 19th-century usage critics pointed out that the word journal literally refers to a “daily” publication. The Pennsylvania Journal in which Witherspoon attacked Americanisms was a weekly.
Witherspoon, like Engel, objected to a number of so-called Americanisms that turned out to be British:
He disliked the American use of notify: “In English we do not notify the person of the thing, but notify the thing to the person.” But notify had been used in the transitive sense since the mid-1400s, long before the New World was a glimmer in Sir Francis Drake’s eye.
Witherspoon found the American phrase “fellow countryman” to be a tautology, though the “tautology” was in use in Engand well before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Witherspoon objected to the way Americans used certain with a proper name, as in “A certain Thomas Benson,” because certain is indefinite while the name is very specific. But this use was certainly English before it was American (OED, s.v., II.7.f).
Witherspoon seemed to think that Americans used clever only in a positive sense, while the Brits used it simply to indicate the ability to do something, whether that something was good, bad, or indifferent. But his contemporary, Alexander Pope, was one of many Old World writers to use clever positively to mean ‘nice, likeable, convenient, or agreeable.’
And Witherspoon joins the general 18th-century chorus decrying those who use mad for ‘angry’ instead of what he thinks it should mean, ‘rabid, crazy, nutso, bonkers.’ It’s a classic American error that Witherspoon finds particularly maddening, although it’s not particularly American: according to the OED,mad was first used to mean ‘angry’ in the 1300s, and after the decline of Middle English wroth it became “the ordinary term for ‘feeling anger’ in many dialects in Great Britain (and later in North America).”
Witherspoon’s 1781 essay on Americanisms sparked a long tradition of attacks on Americanisms, mostly by Brits (and of course the French). Some of the expressions in question did turn out to be American. And certainly some of them were ugly, or illogical, or redundant. But many of them were British. Much language is ugly, illogical, and redundant; and not all objectionable phrases are American.
Just as Witherspoon’s essay on Americanisms struck a chord, Engel’s critique prompted other like-minded Brits to bombard the BBC with examples of unwanted and pernicious Americanisms, and the Beeb published a follow-up list of the 50 most maddening ones. But there were objections to Engel as well, not all of them from Americans. To his critics Engel replied that he had been treated more civilly and sensibly by members of the National Rifle Association after a column on gun control than by “this lot,” his dismissive characterization of the linguists and lexicographers who questioned his under-researched data and his off-the-wall conclusions.
As a parting shot, Engel warned that the English love of Americanisms, if unrestrained, will lead to “51st statehood,” and he counseled his fellow countrymen to maintain “the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version—the original version—of the English language.”
But as English grows as a world language, more and more speakers of English aren’t native speakers of English and don’t live in English-speaking countries. As a result, the importance of the “original version” of the language will continue to decline, and the question of who owns English will ultimately become irrelevant.
But until that happens, and speaking as Engel did of 51st statehood, it might be appropriate to note that the first OED citation for statehood back in 1868 shows that word to be—you guessed it—an Americanism.
First OED citation of the word statehood, from an article on the impeachment of Pres. Johnson and the nomination of Gen. Grant, in the New York Times, June 8, 1868.
Geographic distribution of the 2,236 languages included in the present study. (Credit: Lupyan G, Dale R (2010)
Good news, English Language Learners! English is getting easier to learn each day. An article in Science Daily revealed the first large-scale statistical test of the idea that there is a relationship between social and language structure. Psychologists studied linguistic evolution and found that larger populations tend to have simpler grammar systems and a smaller number of grammatical cases. In general, languages with a wider usage do not employ complex rules in their grammars. That means that languages with a long history of adult learners have become easier to learn over time.
“English, for all its confusing spelling and exceptions…has a relatively simple grammar,” [Researcher Gary] Lupyan said.
Talk About English produces a series called Better Speaking, that is all about how you can become a fluent, confident speaker of English. In the programs you can hear from learners of English from around the world and also from someone who specializes in teaching speaking, trainer Richard Hallows. Better Speaking is presented by Callum Robertson.