And now for a more serious post which is probably lacking in organisation and maybe, coherency.
[I am writing this based on my memory of what I have learnt over my years in NUS and after. My facts / ideas / concepts may be completely inaccurate but seeing that (a) this is my personal journal, (b) I really should be marking my exam scripts and (c) I am too lazy and tired to re-read Bourdieu and other related works again, I'm not double checking my work. I may review this post again in the future when I have time to revise these concepts.]
While, in general, I appear to view the whole SGEM thing with disapproval, I have to admit that I do this from a position of privilege. Fortunately, I am able to speak and write Standard English generally well and thus, I have all the perks and privileges that come with this. In all honesty, I have an ambivalent attitude towards the whole SGE Movement. I cannot wholeheartedly support it because I don’t like what it stands for yet I cannot condemn it completely either because I understand where it is coming from.
When I was in NUS completing my English Language degree, one of the most fascinating courses I took was on sociolinguistics where I first heard of Bourdieu and the idea that language has symbolic power. Of everything I learnt in NUS, this was the one thing that has changed the way I view the world and language in particular. I’ve been somewhat fascinated by studies on power since.
I firmly believe that no one dialect or language is innately superior to another. It is very silly when people start to argue that Singlish is a worse / poorer / less beautiful / less effective language than Std British English. Such arguments are really all arbitrary. We speak in different contexts and in these different contexts, the various languages and dialect all have varying degrees of power. If I were speaking at a paper sharing session in an educational conference, my ability to use academic English gives me legitimacy and power. It makes people listen to me and if I am able to produce academic English at a higher level than another person, I come across as being smarter etc. On the other hand, at my local wet market, academic English has lower symbolic power. Using academic English gives me no advantage at all when dealing with the people at the market. Instead, if I use the language with has greater symbolic power in that field, maybe a Chinese dialect, then I would have symbolic power in that context.
Many people like to assume that linguistic competence is something that is freely available to everyone, something Bourdieu refers to as the “illusion of linguistic communism”. Sadly, the reality is that linguistic competence is a result of the opportunities given to the child, and that both economic and social situations can affect a person’s linguistic competence. Thus, when a dialect is adopted by those in power as the “official language”, it really is a means of managing power. When the Singapore government denounces Singlish and pushes Standard English (whatever it is to them) as the legitimate language in Singapore, they are really establishing a class divide in Singapore.
The less fortunate Singaporeans who may have no access to English tuition or are born into non-Standard-English-speaking backgrounds will find themselves at a huge disadvantage. If you cannot speak the legitimate language, you will find that no one listens to you. No one pays attention to you. And a lot of the time, those who do not have command of Standard English simply decide to keep quiet and silence themselves and often have no trouble stigmatizing their own form of communication, further cementing their lack of power in society. In contrast, those who are born in the higher classes (or are English-speaking foreigners) will have at their finger tips a language competency that gives them significant advantages in Singapore.
Thus, when we buy into this by attempting to shed ourselves of Singlish and work towards speaking the Std English the government wishes, we are also helping them consolidate their power. As long as we all aim to produce Std English, we allow those in power to remain in power as we implicitly support their symbols of power. This is partly why I find it difficult to support the SGE Movement in Singapore.
In schools, we teach a “correct” form of English Language and when we do this, we strip power from the students who are unable to approximate this “correct” form of the English Language. We legitimize the “correct” language through failing those who do not conform and rewarding those who do. And when we do that, we undermine and minimise the experiences and the knowledge of those who do not speak the right language, marginalising them even more in the school, leading to an unequal playing field. Thus those who start out disadvantaged linguistically may find their educational opportunities abruptly cut short (because it is very difficult to move on to post-Secondary education in the polytechnics or JC without an O-level pass in English).
Yeah so language is more than just a means of communication.