The next time you are at a coffee shop, you might overhear an expatriate ordering “kopi-o siew dai” (coffee with less sugar) and even exclaim “shiok”, a Singlish term for “very good”, after a sip.
A number of foreigners in Singapore are attending informal classes to learn Singlish to better communicate with locals and understand the culture here.
Explained Hong Kong expatriate Karen Leung, 34: “I am going to live here, so Singlish is important to me. I want to speak like a local.”
The British Council’s free “Coffee Morning” sessions provides lessons on Singlish, including common English terms used locally that could be unfamiliar to foreigners, and the local culture.
Half a year into these sessions, there has been more than 250 participants of almost 40 nationalities that have attended.
The coordinator, Ms Claire Firat, said Singlish is useful for expatriates to communicate effectively here. “It’s not about learning to say ‘lah’ as much as it is about learning to understand how such terms are used,” she said. “I want people to understand what words mean when they are used, so they don’t make a faux pas.”
For instance, she initially thought a “void deck” was an empty space, without realising it was really the “heart of the community”, specifically, the ground floor of many Housing Board blocks.
Other expressions that confuse expatriates include the invitation to “follow my car”, which means to get into the car rather than to physically follow behind a car, said British Council trainer Jacqueline Fisher.
Said Ms Eleni Sardi, a 33-year-old Greek who works in the communications line: “My favourite word is ‘shiok’. I will be using it quite often to describe the food I try here.”
However, other expatriates such as Briton Alexander Knight, 44, a participant of the Expats in SG group here, said: “Singlish is not a business language and the expatriates I know are mostly here for business reasons, so I don’t think it is that important to learn it.”
Still, language experts said that there is value in picking up local languages such as Singlish. Associate Professor Tan Ying Ying, a linguist at the Nanyang Technological University, said that when expatriates learn Singlish through their local friends, it builds camaraderie.
Prof Tan, who noted that Singlish is not bad English just because someone does not understand it, said: “Singlish is a mark of friendship and familiarity. When expatriates can speak it, they feel more included and locals feel more comfortable with them.”
Ms Firat agrees. “Using Singlish shows people you are interested (in their culture). It causes people, such as taxi drivers, to open up to you,” she said.
By Sue-Ann Tan, The Straits Times, November 2017
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