From Adam Brown (ed.) Proceedings of the Fourth 'English in Southeast Asia' conference, NIE, 22-24 November 1999. pp.201-209.

Potential Influences of Chinese on the Written English of Singapore

David Deterding

There are a many differences between the English written in Singapore (SgE) and that found in other countries, such as the standard English (StdE) used in Britain and the United States. We can observe that some of these features of written SgE are similar to features in Mandarin Chinese, and we can speculate that Chinese might be the source of these features.

It is often impossible to be certain whether Chinese really is the source, as other languages, such as Malay, may have similar features (Poedjosoedarmo, this volume). In fact, in many cases, it is likely that the influence for one feature has come from several different sources which serve to reinforce each other.

This paper discusses similarities between Mandarin Chinese and SgE. In fact, it is only recently that many people in Singapore have learned Mandarin, and so it is actually more likely that other dialects, such as Hokkien and Cantonese, are the real source of the influences. However, it is more useful to discuss the similarities in terms of Mandarin because that is the variety of Chinese that most people are now familiar with.

Even though we can rarely be absolutely certain of the source of the influence, noticing that a feature of SgE is parallel to Chinese usage but differs from StdE can be constructive as it may allow Singaporean writers to avoid these features if they choose. Furthermore, raising awareness in this fashion may help to reduce confusion when Singaporeans communicate with expatriates who are not familiar with the local usage.

This paper will not consider the colloquial English commonly used in informal situations in Singapore ("Singlish"). Instead, it will focus on the written English of well-educated writers, who may at times not be aware that their usage differs from StdE. Most of the examples are taken from the writing of undergraduate students at NIE, all of whom are trainee teachers and all of whom have reasonably good written and spoken English. A few examples are also taken from the national newspaper, The Straits Times.

Three kinds of possible influence will be considered: lexical, including the words and their meanings; syntactic, covering the ways that sentences are constructed; and discourse, dealing with the order of presentation of ideas.


In considering lexical items, we will first briefly consider borrowings and then concentrate on shifts in meaning.


The most obvious influence of one language on another is in terms of borrowings. English has a huge number of borrowings. Even basic words like they and egg were originally borrowed from Old Norse (Crystal, 1995:25), and the process continues with recent borrowings such as genre from French, karaoke from Japanese and yoghurt from Turkish.

Many words have been borrowed into SgE from other languages, and some of them, such as kiasu ("fear of losing out"), have become accepted even in the standard English found in The Straits Times. Few, if any, come from Mandarin, as it is only recently that many people have learned Mandarin.

We will not discuss borrowings further here, because most people are fully aware when they are using a recently borrowed word, so this is unlikely to cause much confusion when talking to non-Singaporeans.

Meaning Shifts

Where a word has a slightly different meaning in SgE than StdE, people are often not aware of such shifts, and there is the potential for considerable misunderstanding. Here, shifts in the meaning of the following words will be discussed: Christian, wish, will, send, and scold.

In StdE, there are two types of Christian: Protestants and Catholics. In other words, Christian is a cover term (or superordinate) for the two branches of the church. In SgE, however, the word Christians refers to what StdE call Protestants, and SgE has no cover term to refer to both varieties. This difference probably arises because the Mandarin for Protestant is ji-du-jiao, which is a direct transliteration from Christian. An example of this SgE usage of Christian comes from a student's essay:

I was enrolled into a missionary primary school, which consisted mostly of Roman Catholics and Christians.

In StdE wish refers to hypothetical events that are unlikely to occur ("I wish I could become an astronaut") while hope is used to refer to possible events ("I hope I can become a good teacher"). Note that, in StdE, the past tense is used to express hypothetical events following wish (Greenbaum & Quirk, 1990:295). In SgE this distinction between wish and hope is often not maintained, so wish can be used to refer to possible events (Brown, 1999:107). This may be influenced by Mandarin Chinese, which has just the single word xi-wang. An example from a student's essay of the SgE use of wish follows. (One could also argue that this sentence might be found in StdE if can were changed to could, to make the event a hypothetical one.)

I just wish our schools can place more importance on students' mother tongue.

In StdE, will nearly always refers to future prediction ("I will see you tomorrow"). Just occasionally will occurs to indicate present prediction ("That will be Fred" when the doorbell is ringing) (Greenbaum and Quirk, 1990:63). In SgE, will is often used to refer to habitual events. This is similar to the use of hui in Chinese, and may be influenced by hui. In the following examples from student essays, the StdE equivalent would omit the will, because the event is habitual present (Greenbaum & Quirk, 1990:48).

When I dine at a restaurant, I will speak English.

When I need to give a presentation, I will use Standard English.

In StdE use of send, if the direct object is a person, the sender does not accompany the person who is sent ("I sent him out of the room"). In contrast, in SgE, if you send people to the airport, you accompany them there to see them off (Brown, 1999:36), and if you send people in a taxi, you similarly go with them. The SgE usage of send may be an influence of Mandarin song. The following example (from The Straits Times 28.4.2000) describes a mother who makes sure that someone accompanies her son to school every day. The StdE equivalent would probably use take.

She insists on taking her oldest son, who is 17, to school. If she is unable to, she gets the maid to send him in a cab.

In StdE, scold is only for adults toward children, but in SgE, an adult can scold another adult (Brown, 1999:189). This is similar to the Mandarin ma. The following example (from The Straits Times 18.7.2000) illustrates how, in SgE, scold can be used to describe the interaction between two adults.

… the following month, she accused [her maid] of taking a nap when she was supposed to be looking after her eight-month-old baby, and scolded her.


Syntax is concerned with the rules that determine the structure of sentences. In the theory of syntax known as Minimalist Grammar (Chomsky, 1995), it is claimed that much of the variation between languages can be described in terms of 'parameters' which may have one setting in one language but a different setting in another language.

Two of the most commonly discussed parameters are the Null Subject Parameter and the Head Parameter (Radford, 1997:17-19), and it so happens that these two parameters have a different setting in Mandarin and in English. Here we will consider whether this might have any influence on the written English of Singaporeans.

In addition, we will consider the use of correlated connectives, such as although and but.

Null Subject Parameter

StdE is not a null-subject language, which means that the subject of a finite clause cannot be omitted. This is why we say "It is raining" even though it doesn't actually refer to anything. In contrast, Mandarin is a null-subject language, so there is no need for a clause to have a subject if it is predictable from context (Li & Thompson, 1981:657) or if its meaning is empty. The Mandarin equivalent of "It is raining" is "Xia yu le", which has no subject.

Gupta (1994:10) claims that Singapore Colloquial English is null subject. However, it is rare in educated written SgE to find finite clauses where the subject is omitted –Singaporean writers learn to avoid this problem early in their education.

However, there is one situation where StdE and SgE do differ in their use of null-subject structures: newspaper headlines. Although there are many kinds of words, such as articles and auxiliary verbs, that can be omitted from headlines in StdE, finite clauses always have a subject. In contrast, it is quite common to find headlines in The Straits Times where a finite verb is not preceded by a subject:

Used boss' details to get credit cards (The Straits Times 30.12.98)

Lost $200 to snatch thief (The Straits Times 7.1.99)

Stole $58,000 from shipmaster (The Straits Times 12.1.99)

Pushed URA officer down (The Straits Times 18.3.99)

Hurt girlfriend with lighted butt (The Straits Times 28.4.99)

It is just possible that this use of subjectless finite clauses in newspaper headlines shows the influence of the different setting of the Null Subject Parameter in Mandarin.

Head Parameter

The Head Parameter specifies where the head of a phrase occurs. English is a head-first language, so for example the head of the noun phrase "pencils on my desk" is pencils, which occurs at the start. In contrast, Mandarin is a head-last language, so that the equivalent noun phrase is "zhuo-zi shang de qian-bi", with the head qian-bi at the end.

The different setting for English and Mandarin does not seem to have any obvious influence on SgE, as we do not, for example, find people writing "on my desk pencils". However, there is one area where it is just possible that the different setting of the Head Parameter might have an influence: mismatches with subject-verb agreement. Consider the following examples, all taken from student essays.

The children in the next generation uses this language.

My competency in both English and Chinese were more or less evenly balanced

I realise that the features of my speech is rather distinct and different.

The pronunciation of my diphthongs are very similar to those of a British speaker.

All of these sentences exhibit the same characteristic: the verb agrees in number with the nearest noun, and not the head of the subject. The most likely explanation for this is that the principle of proximity has overridden the expected identification of the head. However, it is just possible that varying settings of the Head Parameter may have contributed to the problem.

Correlated Connectives

If there are two clauses in a sentence, Mandarin tends to mark both of them with a connector, for example: yin-weisuo-yi ("because … therefore"). Some forward-linking connectors in Mandarin actually require a corresponding backward-linking element in the following clause: sui-ran ... ke-shi ("although … but") (Li & Thompson, 1981:637).

In StdE, such correlated connectives are rare, and it is usual for just one of the clauses to have a connecting conjunction: you can use either although or but, but not both. In SgE, on the other hand, we often find two connectives, as is shown in the following examples from students essays, and this may well arise from the influence of Chinese.

Since his explanation is rather long, therefore I have extracted only part of it.

Though it may not be a direct translation, but it is more acceptable in English.


Discourse analysis deals with the order of presentation of ideas. It is sometimes difficult to separate discourse influences from syntactic influences, because much of syntax (such as the Head Parameter) also determines the order of words. However, under the rubric of discourse, it is useful to consider areas where there is a preference for one sentential structure over another in different languages.

Here, we will consider the strong tendency in Mandarin for placing the topic clearly out at the start of a sentence, and also the claim that there is a tendency in Chinese to present reasons (the because clause) before the conclusions (the therefore clause).


Mandarin Chinese can be described as a topic-prominent language (Li & Thompson, 1981). This means that there is a strong tendency in Chinese for the topic to appear prominently at the start of the sentence, sometimes preceded by a word such as dui-yu ("regarding").

Of course, English also usually has the topic at the start of the sentence, in keeping with the basic theme-rheme structure (Halliday, 1985). However, the tendency is not quite so strong in English, which is why Li and Thompson (1981) classify English as a SVO (subject verb object) language but Chinese as a topic-prominent language.

In SgE, the topic is sometimes given a more prominent position at the front of the sentence than might be expected in StdE, and it is possible that this is because of the influence of Chinese. In the following sentences, where students are describing phonetic features of their own speech, the topic is placed very prominently at the front.

From the computer analysis, it shows that I have /eI/ in my citation speech.

With general reference to my vowels in citation speech, they are similar to those of British English.

In the case of dental fricatives, I replace them with alveolar plosives.

Although there is nothing grammatically wrong with any of these sentences, they would seem somewhat unnatural in StdE. The StdE equivalent of these three sentences would probably be:

The computer analysis shows that I have /eI/ in my citation speech.

My vowels in citation speech are generally similar to those of British English.

I replace dental fricatives with alveolar plosives.

Notice that in the first two examples, there is no difference in the order of presentation of the elements between SgE and StdE. It is just that in the StdE equivalents, the topic is not marked quite so prominently at the beginning.


Kirkpatrick (1993) claims that, in Mandarin, there is a strong tendency to present a because clause before a therefore clause. In contrast, in English the because clause is more likely to occur at the end.

Kirkpatrick further argues that this tendency extends beyond the sentence level, so that reasons are usually presented before the conclusion in Chinese, while in English a summary of the full argument might be presented at the start with the detailed justifications presented later.

Because these are tendencies and not absolutes, there would be little value in presenting individual examples to illustrate possible influences of Chinese on SgE. Instead, we would have to analyse a large number of essays and see whether there was a statistical difference in the preferred structures in StdE and SgE. This is clearly an area of further research.


A number of areas where written SgE may have been influenced by the structure of Chinese have been discussed. It must be emphasised that in most of the instances, the influence might have come from Malay, or quite probably from both Chinese and Malay. It is worth noting that individual writers can be influenced by languages that they themselves don't actually speak, if their parents, their teachers, or their friends speak those languages.

It is hoped that, even if some of the proposed influences from Chinese on SgE cannot be proven, appreciation of some of the similarities between Mandarin and SgE can raise awareness of the structure of the written language in Singapore and might give Singaporean writers greater flexibility in their choice of styles.


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