I moved to Singapore in November 2010 for work. When I first landed, I had a hard time understanding everybody. From the taxi driver uncles to the store clerks, I had no idea what they were saying and I would just nod my head and agree. Half the time, I didn’t know what was being discussed. I got away with smiling and nodding.
Singapore is an multicultural island city-state with many official languages. These are English, Malay, Putonghua Mandarin and Tamil. Its only natural that their English would not be the typical American English many are accustomed to. I was born in the Philippines but grew up in North America. Filipinos speak good English but we still have our own Filipino twang when we talk. I can do both Filipino English and American English since I am accustomed to both. I wasn’t prepared for Singlish at all. It was a bit sing-songy and the pronunciation is totally different. Lucky for me, as a Chinese speaker, I also understood the Singlish Hokkien terms. Out of the 4 official langues, I can speak two.
It took a few months before I got the hang of it. Once you’ve grasped the intonation, everything else is easier. I roll my eyes whenever I hear people add “lah” to every sentence just to say that they’re speaking Singlish. Its not just “lah”. There’s a lot more to Singlish than just that one word. I remember asking my colleagues for the meaning every time I encountered a word or phrase. You build up your vocabulary and use strategically use them in conversations to show your mastery of the language.
I even downloaded this app from the App Store called Hosay! and it even shows you how to use the word/phrase in sentences. Words such as “aiyoh”, “atas”, “ah beng”, “shiok”, “alamak”, “blur” or even “vomit blood” or terms you won’t hear anywhere else. I admit that I do miss hearing Singlish occasionally since I left Singapore in 2014. Every time I land at Changi Airport, I get this tingly, good feeling hearing Singlish again for the next few days.
After almost four years in Singapore, I can do Singlish well enough. Not like a local, but I can do a spot on Singaporean accent. I can add that to my repertoire of English languages such as Taglish (Filipino English), normal English, and Singlish.
By the way, ho say bo means “all good?”