Adrian Tien

When is the language users’ language truly bilingual, and when is it not? Contemporary Chinese lexicon as evidence of language diversity and (re)vitalisation in Singapore


Wednesday 6 November, 12.00-12.30, E0103

Singapore occupies an interesting position at the crossroads between languages and cultures – a fact which is testament not only in historical or geographical terms but also in the contemporary linguistic situation of this country. Preliminarily speaking, Singapore has four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, with English being the main lingua franca in official communicative contexts and recognised as a “first language”, whereas the other languages are regarded as “mother tongues” and tend to be the native languages used at home by each of their corresponding ethnic and cultural groups. English is, without doubt, the language that every Singaporean speaks (or is supposed to be able to speak) whilst Chinese is, by far, the most widely spoken of the mother tongues, since the ethnic Chinese who speak the language represents the biggest group of the overall Singapore population. Whatever the mother tongue, most Singaporeans are, apparently, bilingual and typically speak English and either Chinese, Malay or Tamil. 

But the current linguistic situation in Singapore is actually far more complicated and vibrant than that. This paper sets out to delineate the situation and examines it from the perspective of the languages of the language user. To do so, we propose that the following issues be reconciled with, a priori: a. standard language vs. language variety: each of the languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) is not just spoken in its standard form but also in the way of an indigenised (pidginised or creolised) variety – famously “Singlish”, which is a characteristically Singaporean variety of English – and this variety can be as distinctive and unique as a separate language; b. bilingualism vs. bidialectalism: Chinese is itself represented in Singapore not only by standard Chinese but also a number of Chinese dialects, prominently Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese; in fact, standard Chinese is itself based on one of the Chinese dialects, Mandarin. It is well-known that Chinese dialects are as mutually unintelligible as separate languages and, for this reason, Chinese dialects have important ramifications for the present situation; and c. code switching vs. code mixing: since code switching (referring here to a temporary switching between two languages) and code mixing (referring here to a habitual mixing of elements of other languages within one language) are both employed by Singaporean language users, we need to know which one is taking place before establishing a case of true bilingualism. 

Our initial analysis, principally based on a study of the typical language users’ Chinese lexicon in Singapore, indicates that Singaporeans are typically bilingual or even multilingual, though not necessarily so in the conventional sense (e.g. between English and Chinese) but also in the sense that varieties and dialects behave like separate languages (e.g. between English, Singlish and Chinese Hokkien). None of these is surprising, however, given close contact between the languages within Singapore, which, in turn, reflects the close socio-cultural contact between Singaporeans of different ethnic backgrounds. Implications of this linguistic situation are discussed in terms of language diversity and (re)vitalisation in Singapore, with special consideration of ontogenic (individual) vs phylogenic (collective) language development, language acquisition and language attrition, etc.