Vol. 2. No. 2 R-7 September 1996
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The Step-tongue: Children's English in Singapore

Gupta, Anthea Fraser (1994)
Clevedon England: Multilingual Matters
Pp. xiv + 229.
ISBN 1-85359-229-3 (paper)
US $29.95

Anthea Fraser Gupta's book,The Step-tongue: Children's English in Singapore, aims to provide an account of the local variety of English spoken by Singaporean children. The author calls this variety "Singapore Colloquial English." This book's main contribution is that it seeks to analyze this local variety in its own right rather than through an error-based analysis using the Queen's English as its benchmark. This raises the status of the local variety to that of a language worthy of analysis.

Singapore Colloquial English is sharply different from Standard English, especially in syntax and morphology. This variety of English is used in the home and in casual situations. It is the normal variety spoken to very young children outside a pedagogical situation. Nearly all children who have English from birth will have Singapore Colloquial English rather than Standard English as their native language.

Several earlier studies of Singapore English (Tongue, 1974; Platt & Weber, 1980) have considered this variety to be substandard. Tongue worried that there would be a descent to this variety of English from Queen's English after the independence of Singapore as a significant number of speakers of British English left Singapore. Gupta, however, points out that it is a native variety of English spoken in Singapore and it is here to stay.

Gupta's book consists of five chapters. The first chapter sets the background of Singapore in relation to Singapore Colloquial English. Chapter 2 describes the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English in general and chapter 3 focuses on the acquisition of interrogatives in Singapore Colloquial English. Chapter 4 is a discussion of the controversial issue of bilingualism in Singapore's educational system. Chapter 5 discusses the importance of the use of Singapore Colloquial English in the assessment and intervention of children in Singapore with language disorders.

In chapter 1, Gupta claims that the features that most distinguish Singapore Colloquial English from Standard English are syntactic. Many features which are required in Standard English are optional in Singapore Colloquial English. These features include the use of BE, tense marking, and the use of other verb or noun morphology. The use of pragmatic particles, mostly loans from southern varieties of Chinese, is prevalent in Singapore Colloquial English. Pragmatic particles always follow a constituent and are often, but not always, sentence final. Gupta divides these particles into three groups: tentative particles (e.g., ah), assertive [-1-] particles (e.g., lah) and contradictory particles (e.g., mah, what). She gives the following examples (pp. 10-11):

1. The first one downstairs ah. (I think the first one is downstairs.)

2. Her price is too high for me lah. (Her price is really too high for me.)

3. I never draw what. (I did NOT draw on your book!)

When the subject can be retrieved from the context, Singapore Colloquial English does not require that the subject be expressed:

4. Go where? (Where are you going?)

5. OK, fly away already. (It has flown away.)

6. Also can urinate. (People can urinate here.)

Certain conditional and temporal clauses do not require a conjunction:

7. Disturb him again, I call Daddy to come down. (If you disturb him again, I will ask Daddy to come downstairs to deal with you.)

8. She says she go to school then got exercise. (She says when she goes to school, she will get some exercise.)

The verb BE is optional in Singapore Colloquial English between a subject and a complement or as an auxiliary:

9. He scared. (He is/was scared.)

10. Today I going swimming. (I'm going swimming today.)

Besides Singapore Colloquial English, which is considered to be the Low variety of English, Gupta claims that there are other varieties of Singapore English which do not show a clear polarization on either High or Low variety. In the intermediate varieties, the pragmatic particles and BE-deletion are used alongside Standard English verb and noun morphology. That is, there is a continuum of varieties between Singapore Colloquial English and Standard English.

In chapter 1, Gupta also discusses at length the notion of a native speaker. She accepts as native speakers of Singapore English two groups of Singaporeans. The first group consists of those who have English as the primary medium of instruction in school from an [-2-] early age to a high level. The second group consists of children who have acquired English at home from birth. Gupta does not consider adults who are not able to speak standard English but only speak the local variety to be native speakers of Singapore Colloquial English.

Chapter 2 is essentially a description of Gupta's study on the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English by four preschool children (two boys and two girls) in two families. These children were from middle-class Chinese homes. Their parents can speak Standard English and Singapore Colloquial English. These children were considered to be native speakers of Singapore Colloquial English as this variety is their main domestic language. However, the languages spoken by grandparents and babysitters were Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew. The younger boy in one of the families spent the work week with his Hokkien-speaking babysitter from age 1.3 to about 3, and only went home for weekends.

The next section of chapter 2 describes how the older children in Gupta's study started acquiring Standard English in school and began to be diglossic in their use of English. The last section describes the acquisition of sentence-final pragmatic particles by these children.

Chapter 3 focuses on the acquisition of interrogatives by the children in Gupta's study. This is the only chapter where Gupta succeeds in analyzing the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English in its own right. This chapter gives detailed qualitative analyses of the acquisition of wh-words in embedded and matrix clauses in Singapore Colloquial English. According to Gupta, there do not seem to be clear developmental changes in the syntax of Singapore Colloquial English, unlike those that occur in Standard English. Development seems to be more additive in nature. For example, who, what, and where appear to be the first wh-words acquired, followed by why. By age 3.6, how tois acquired, followed by how, and which. Whenis acquired last.

In chapter 4, Gupta discusses the relationship between language policy and the languages spoken in Singapore. Since the "Speak More Mandarin" campaign in 1979, Mandarin has become an increasingly important lingua franca among the Chinese. Prior to that, most Chinese used Hokkien to communicate among themselves, although they may have spoken other dialects at home, such as Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese or Teoche. Those who went to Chinese-medium schools were able to speak, read and write Mandarin. Those educated in English would pick up several Chinese dialects orally but would have limited skill in Mandarin. Since the launch of the campaign, parents who know Mandarin but who had chosen to speak their own Chinese dialects have predominantly switched to using Mandarin at home. This is largely due to the fact that the school system requires a passing grade in the second language (Mandarin for Chinese students) at all levels. The "Speak More Mandarin" campaign has led to the widespread [-3-] use of Mandarin among the Chinese and reduced multilingualism through displacement of other Chinese dialects. According to Gupta, the official policy of encouragement of speaking Mandarin Chinese threatens the position of non-Chinese minorities in Singapore. She feels that Singapore Colloquial English is crucial in maintaining racial harmony as well as national identity in Singapore, which is a multi-ethnic society (Chinese constitute about three quarters of the population, with large minorities of Malays, Indians and other races).

There is also an important section in chapter 4 on the use of Singapore Colloquial English in pre-schools. Gupta gives a very good description of how pre-school teachers use the local variety to teach Standard English. The majority of the children in pre-schools are in fact Chinese-speaking rather than English-speaking. Thus, the use of Singapore Colloquial English serves as a bridge to Standard English.

Chapter 5 is jointly written by Gupta and Helen Chandler Yeo, who is a speech therapist. This chapter explores the field of speech therapy in Singapore and how Singapore Colloquial English can be used to assess children with language disability. After they have described the lamentable state of the speech therapy field, Gupta and Yeo present two case studies of children with language disorders. These two children are native speakers of Singapore Colloquial English who had problems with sentence word order and the order of prepositions in prepositional phrases. Gupta and Yeo stress that there is an urgent need to standardize language tests to the local population. At present, it is difficult to assess children who have a language disability due to the absence of norms. Moreover, there is a preponderance of speech language therapists who do not speak any Chinese. The majority of the therapists are proficient in only Indian and European languages. Only 7 of 22 therapists speak a variety of Chinese. There is certainly a need for therapists who are proficient in the local languages.

The main strength of Gupta's book is that it gives a good description of the child's acquisition of interrogatives in Singapore Colloquial English. This should lay an important part of the foundation for the assessment of language disorders in young children. It is also important in the sense that for the first time, there has been an attempt to study the child's acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English. This should spur future studies in the same direction.

However, the serious reader may find Gupta's book lacking in rigor. A sociolinguist by training, she tends to use an ethnographic method of description throughout the book. Although the book gives a fairly adequate description of the linguistic situation in Singapore in relation to politics, education and language disorders, the analysis of the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English needs to [-4-] be improved. The only chapters which deal directly with the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English in Singapore are chapters 2 and 3. Even then, they are focused primarily on the acquisition of interrogatives and sentence-final particles, and there does not seem to have been an analysis of which pragmatic particles were acquired first.

In chapter 1, no reason was given for distinguishing the Low variety spoken by the highly-educated and that spoken by speakers who have low proficiency in standard English. We are referred to Gupta's 1990 dissertation for the reasons why she feels it is important to separate the two. I think it is important to analyze systematically whether there are differences between the colloquial variety spoken by speakers with high and low proficiency in standard English. If we consider Singapore Colloquial English to be a language which is different from standard English, then proficiency in standard English should not be taken into consideration when determining whether a person is a native speaker of Singapore Colloquial English.

Gupta criticizes a research study conducted by Singapore's Institute of Education (Ko & Ho, 1992) as being pervaded by a normative approach that prevents their data from being of much use in assessing the extent of knowledge of English among Singaporean pre-school children. She suggests, for example, that the study used Roger Brown's 14-morpheme analysis inappropriately, since Brown's analysis requires the presence of grammatical morphemes but Singapore Colloquial English is in fact a morphologically simple language. It is not at all clear, however, that Brown's analysis was used except on a cursory or preliminary basis (Ko & Ho, 1992, p. 62). Gupta also reproduces in Table 1.2 results of a verbal fluency test administered as part of the Ko & Ho study to 280 children aged 3 to 6 over a period of 4 years. What is striking about these results is that they indicate a success rate of less than 4% in verbal fluency in English as a second language across the entire age range. Gupta comments that this is "amazingly low and must reflect a tremendously stringent standard" (p. 22). She was misled, however, by Figure 1.3 of Sim and Lee (1992) where the results of the verbal fluency test were mislabelled as "percentage success." The verbal fluency test consisted of showing five photographs to a child and asking the child to choose one and talk about it. The child's speech was then categorized in one of five levels from 1 (least fluent) to 5 (most fluent), according to the fluidity of speech, quantity and quality of verbal response, and indications of grammar development and communicativeness (Ko and Ho, 1992, p. 37 and 181). While Sim and Lee express disappointment at the children's poor performance on the first and second language verbal fluency tasks, average fluency levels of 2.4 to 3.9 on a scale of 5 can hardly be considered "amazingly low" for children whose dominant home language is not English in most cases. It also seems somewhat unfair to criticize the Ko and Ho study for failing to provide a better picture of the [-5-] language skills of pre-school children when the primary focus of the project was on cognitive and social development rather than language development per se.

There are a few drawbacks relating to chapters 2 and 3. First, the adult target language, which is Singapore Colloquial English, has not been analyzed rigorously in chapter 1 and that makes it difficult to know what kind of errors children make in their acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English. Despite Gupta's intention not to use an error-based analysis for Singapore Colloquial English, this is done many times in the book. The features of the colloquial variety are essentially compared to that of the standard variety on pages 9 through 13. For example, the word order of Singapore Colloquial English is not mentioned because presumably it has an SVO order as standard English does. Neither is the order of adverbs or prepositions mentioned. Gupta's original intention to also analyze the mothers' speech to their children was not carried out, leaving very little data for target adult speech. Gupta's presence as a speaker of Standard British English, as well as the presence of a tape-recorder, may have made it difficult for the mothers to speak Singapore Colloquial English.

In chapter 2, I find it doubtful that Singapore Colloquial English can be considered the dominant language of the younger boy in Gupta's longitudinal study. He spent the entire work week with his Hokkien-speaking babysitter. His only source of Singapore Colloquial English was his elder brother, aged 4;6 to about 6 during that period. He interacted with him during the afternoons. The elder brother was considered to be a source of a mature variety of Singapore Colloquial English although he was a preschooler.

In chapter 3, the quantitative analysis is lacking. The tables in this chapter are rudimentary. The number of occurrences of each type of wh-word is not compared against a hundred utterances, as is often done in child language studies. That makes comparison among the four children, as well as against future work, difficult.

With respect to the "Speak More Mandarin" policy described in chapter 4, I feel that Chinese parents who are not proficient in Mandarin Chinese also feel threatened by the policy. Moreover, the reason that highly educated Indians and Eurasians from English- speaking homes feel threatened by this policy is that they were formerly over-represented in higher education due to their mastery of English relative to Chinese. For example, in the past there were disproportionate numbers of Eurasian and Indian lawyers and teachers. With this new policy, they no longer enjoy their former superiority due to their ability in English. This new status of Mandarin Chinese has in fact improved the status of working-class Chinese Singaporeans who speak mainly Mandarin, and has enabled them to have more opportunities in education as well as in the workplace. The Malays have always been under-represented in higher education [-6-] and thus traditionally they were under-represented among the professional and managerial classes. However, with the economic growth of Malaysia and Indonesia, the Malay language is becomingly increasingly important.

The emphasis on the mother tongue (Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and other Indian languages) which is deplored by Gupta is crucial. The cultural heritage of each child is very important and it is essential to know these languages to gain access to the culture and history of Singapore. For example, different perceptions between Malays and Chinese led to the separation of Singapore and Malaysia. An American wrote an account of the separation of Singapore and Malaysia based exclusively on English language sources (Fletcher, 1969). Examination of Malay and Chinese sources as well would certainly have provided a much fuller picture of the events that led to Singapore's separation from Malaysia.

The links between the chapters are not always apparent. For example, chapter 5 seems almost to be an afterthought. One would presume there should have been a link between chapters 2 and 3, which describe the acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English, and chapter 5, which attempts to link it to the assessment and intervention of children with a language disability. However, that link is very weak. In chapter 5, Gupta and Yeo describe two children having problems with sentence word order and the order of prepositions in Singapore Colloquial English. However, these two features are not mentioned in chapter 2 or 3, probably because they have similar counterparts in Standard English. Thus, in spite of Gupta's commitment to study Singapore English in its own right, this does not always translate into her actual study of this language.

In spite of these weaknesses, those who are interested in the language acquisition of Singapore Colloquial English by young children will find Gupta's book helpful. This book is also very readable and is thus suitable for the layman who wants to know the role of Singapore Colloquial English in Singapore. Those who are unfamiliar with the language situation in Singapore will especially enjoy reading this book. It serves as a very good introduction to the role of the local variety of English in Singapore and how children acquire this variety. I would also encourage readers to read David Bloom's (1986) review of the history of English in Singapore for a more in-depth account of the role of English in Singapore.


Bloom, D. (1980). The English language in Singapore: A critical survey. In B. K. Kapur (ed.), Singapore studies. Singapore: Singapore University Press. [-7-]

Fletcher, N. M. (1969). The separation of Singapore from Malaysia. Southeast Asia Program Data Paper 73. Ithaca: Cornell University.

Ko, P. S. & Ho, W. K. (1992). Growing up in Singapore: The preschool years. Singapore: Longman.

Platt, J. & Weber, H. (1980). English in Singapore and Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.

Sim, W. K. & Lee, M. F. F. (1992). Singapore preschoolers: How much do we know about them? In P. S. Ko & W. K. Ho (eds.), Growing up in Singapore. Singapore: Longman.

Tongue, R. (1974). The English of Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

Susan Gwee
Boston University


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