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A Labyrinth of Language

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”- Nelson Mandela

People are united by their language. Their language comprises a big part of their identity, and each one is unique in its own way. Communication is, of course, another key reason we even have languages, but they can be a source of division, as much as they unite us.

The most common difficulty we all face when we move somewhere new is language. Miscommunication, or not being able to communicate at all, hinders us from really getting to know a place. Imagine not being able to ask for directions to your workplace, or even being unable to ask for something “vegetarian”. That’s the trouble my mother faced when we visited Beijing, and it gets very frustrating after a while. Asking the locals for help can only get you so far, and getting angry because of this lack of communication is futile. You have to learn to adapt.

Being able to navigate an unfamiliar setting allows you to explore your new location by yourself, and makes you feel like you really know the place. It helps in your school or workplace, as communication becomes much easier. Speaking the local language really makes you feel like you fit in, because you can carry out proper conversations without feeling uneasy or embarrassed, and you even begin taking on the accent, and start to sound like the locals. They usually appreciate it when you take the effort to speak the way they do. Getting to know a place mainly involves mingling with the locals, and you can only do that if you can interact with them with ease. So, if you don’t want to awkwardly sit on the side-lines, you have to know their language to converse with them.

Since Singapore is home to a large number of ethnicities, it is not uncommon to hear various languages almost everywhere you go. The most common are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Most schools and businesses conduct everyday operations in English. However, since majority of Singaporeans are Chinese, having a command of the language can be very useful for mingling with locals. Everyone has a basic understanding of English, and people are very willing to help you out. Malay is the next common language. In many places frequented by locals such as food courts, it is usually appreciated if you try to say basic phrases like “thank you” in their language. If you mispronounce it, most people will just laugh it off and possibly like you even more. One characteristic feature of Singapore is Singlish, the colloquial style of English commonly spoken here. It is a mixture of English, Chinese and Malay. It is incredibly easy to pick up and very fun to speak one you get the hang of it. It is a bit hard to understand at first. You’ll find that the accompanying accent takes a while to get used to, but knowing it is useful as almost everyone would understand you. Once you become familiar with it, you start to switch between Singlish and proper English depending on where you are, as I often find myself doing.

The large number of foreigners also contributes to the variety of languages spoken in Singapore. I learned French as a second language in school, and I was sitting behind a French family in the bus the other day. I found myself trying to decipher what they were saying, and found that I actually could! This diversity which you are exposed to in Singapore is very rewarding as you learn about so many new things regarding the various cultures that exist in harmony here. Although it is very easy for any visitor to make their way around Singapore, with its easy-to-navigate systems and the friendly people, it can still be daunting.

Whenever you visit a new destination, always carry a small list of common phrases around with you. Even if you can’t speak the language, you can always show it to a local and get them to help you. The minimal knowledge of sign language everyone seems to possess – signalling straight, right, left etc. – can take you very far with some basic questions. If you plan on living there for quite a while, it is advisable to enrol in some classes to learn their language, as you will absolutely need to know how to interact with the locals.

Knowing a new language is not always associated with relocating. Being bilingual, or even multilingual, can be very useful for you as you never know when these languages might come in handy. The ability to learn new languages is a wonderful talent in itself, and being able to put this talent to use is really worthwhile.

 

Nikki

My name is Nikki and I currently study in Singapore.  I come from Bangalore, India while my parents come from two different Indian states, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and I have lived in various cities like Delhi and Bombay.  Other than my academics, I have been learning Bharatanatyam, which is a form of classical Indian dance, for the past 10 years now.  I also love to read and am a volunteer at the Singapore National Library.  I have a great attraction towards these projects due to my passion to help people, and I find that these make me a more compassionate person, as well as help me to see the reality of the world. 

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