So I’ve been thinking about the standard English versus Singlish debate and questioning the government’s assumption that for some people at least, speaking Singlish “crowds out” or limits their ability to master standard English. It’s an alluring and plausible assumption, but I’m not sure it’s correct. Even if it’s possible to ban Singlish, I don’t think the people who can’t “code switch” would necessarily be more likely or more able to master standard English. The brain just doesn’t work like that.

Psychologists such as the Economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman as well as behavioral economists such as Richard Thaler talk about the brain having two “operating systems” – a slow, conscious, analytical and deliberate decision-making part that Thaler calls the Reflective System (or what Kahneman calls Slow Thinking); and a fast, energy-saving, effortless and habitual part called the Automatic System (or Fast Thinking).

For many people, maybe speaking in Singlish is second nature and automatic, while speaking standard English requires conscious, deliberate effort (if they are able to do it at all). Those of us who can code switch can speak both effortlessly, i.e. both Singlish and English are part of our Automatic System. To master a language means practising and using it so often that it becomes effortless and natural – like a habit.

If speaking standard English is effortful for some people, would getting rid of Singlish make their ability to speak standard English automatic, instinctive and effortless? I seriously doubt it. Just because I get rid of a (bad) habit does not mean that I can (easily) replace it with another, presumably good, habit. Acquiring the good habit still requires practice and effort.

Does societal or state delegitimization of Singlish (a bad habit) make it more likely that people will acquire the good habit of speaking standard English? I also doubt it. In all likelihood, another simpler, uncomplicated and highly functional form of broken English (or broken Mandarin) would simply take the place of Singlish.

Cognitive psychologists also tell us that while the Reflective System is a scarce resource- there’re only so many cognitively effortful things we can do at any point in time- the Automatic System is quite elastic and allows us to do many simple cognitive tasks simultaneously. For instance when we drive, we’re also daydreaming and fiddling with the stereo.

What all this suggests is that if the government is serious about promoting good English, its real job is to help Singaporeans master standard English so that it becomes effortless and habitual. This means exposing children to standard English from a very young age because after the age of 4-5, a person’s ability to speak a language like a native speaker diminishes rapidly. (By the way, I would argue that this means nationalizing pre-school education because under the current fragmented preschool system, many children are just not getting the requisite exposure to good English.) Rubbishing or running down Singlish is a form of scapegoating; it’s also an excuse for not doing anything more substantive.

There’s no need to demonize or delegitimize Singlish, because it’s not as if getting rid of it or discouraging it will “expand” our Automatic System and make us more competent or adept in mastering standard English. To say it does is like saying that to master riding a bicycle, I need to unlearn how to catch a ball (assuming this is instinctive for me). It just doesn’t make any sense.

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