Yawning Bread is an interesting website run by Au Waipang, a Singaporean of Chinese descent, who in his about page explains:

As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.

So, regardless of the Singapore government’s silly notion that one’s mother tongue is determined by one’s race or ethnicity, I have always maintained that my mother tongue is English. I think in English, I dream in English, and as is apparent from this site, I write in English.

I love people who confuse those who think in stereotypes, and this guy is a funny, acerbic writer to boot. I got a kick out of his rant about Chinese who “perceive Singapore as an extension of the Chinese world”; it includes, among much else, a discussion of a “unique habit” of Singaporeans:

We first draw some conclusion about a person’s race before we decide what language to use. A Singaporean would not speak to someone who looks Indian in Chinese. Generally, we would use English to him without a moment’s thought.

In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they’re speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand). In Thailand, the Siamese use Thai when addressing people of Punjabi, Chinese or Burmese ancestry. In France, they use French to everyone, whether you’re white, yellow, brown or black.

In China too, if you look Han Chinese (or East Asian), people will mostly speak to you in the provincial language first, e.g. Shanghainese or the Sichuan dialect, and if that fails, they will switch to Putonghua. If you don’t look Han Chinese (e.g. if you’re Egyptian or Uighur), then they will assume you’re not from the locality, and they’ll speak to you in Putonghua from the start. Putonghua is the lingua franca, the link language for communication across ethnic groups.

And a fascinating excursus on the name of an area of Singapore called Geylang:

It’s an old name, predating the arrival of the British in 1819. This means its origin was almost surely from the Orang Laut people who inhabited this island before the empire-builders came ashore.

The Chinese immigrants, of whom a plurality were Hokkien (from the Xiamen region of Fujien province) [1], learnt the name of the area from the original inhabitants and they too pronounced it as “geylang”. In written form, the Chinese found two ideograms, which in the Hokkien pronunication sound like “gay lahng”. Thus, so long as one pronounced the Chinese ideograms using the Hokkien dialect, it came out right.

Then we decided to get rid of Chinese dialects insisting that all Chinese characters should be pronounced the putonghua way. Thus, those same two ideograms had to be pronounced as “ya long” (“yah” + “long”, where the second syllable is a long “oh”).

Meanwhile, Singaporeans continued to know the place as Geylang, and even when we speak Mandarin, we insert the place name into our sentences without mutating its pre-existing pronunciation. It doesn’t have to be a Chinese name to fit into a Chinese sentence, just like how Australians might say, “we’re off to Joondalup”, knowing full well that “joondalup” is from a native language.

The result is that some Singaporeans, otherwise fluent in Mandarin, do not know that Yalong is Geylang, since they never say “Yalong”.

(He has a box showing the characters, but they’re images rather than Unicode, so I can’t reproduce them here.)

I have to correct him on one point. He says:

In Bangkok, the road names Witthayu and Silom mean, respectively “wireless” and “windmill”. But we’d be a fool to get on board a taxi and say, “take me to Windmill Road”, or “take me to Wireless Road”, using the translation of the meaning of the Thai words. We’d say “Silom” or “Witthayu” as close as possible to the way Thais say it. We’d think it useless to have a map in hand that marks the roads as Windmill Road and Wireless Road.

But in fact they do say “Wireless Road” in Bangkok (where I used to live), and it is so marked on English-language maps.

Thanks for the link, Charles!


  1. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    His parents capitulate to Western language aggression, and he now accepts that as part of his identity instead of seeing it as immensely regrettable. How sad.

  2. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    His parents were forced or convinced to learn English and he has made the conscious decision to profit from that. What a positive person.

  3. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    He speaks the language his parents used at home. How normal.

  4. Heh. Linguistic Rorschach test! (For what it’s worth, I agree with the last two comments.)

  5. “In most other places, people use the lingua franca of their country or province regardless of the colour of the person they’re speaking to, unless the person is very evidently a foreigner (e.g. a Caucasian man in Thailand).”
    Oddly enough, this is no longer true in parts of the United States. I’m a half-caste Asian-White, and I look vaguely Hispanic, with the result that strangers — often beggars — in LA have sometimes addressed me in Spanish (a language I do not know).
    I have had a similar experience in other countries. When visiting Constantinople with my White father, the Turkish youths sometimes thought I was one of them, and tried to address me in Turkish (another language I don’t know). They were asking, as I discovered when one finally switched to English, why I was “so cold” to them, and didn’t share my tourist with them, so they could, I suppose, take him to rug shops and get commissions, or however that works.

  6. michael farris says

    I agree with the first three comments, more the first and third rather than the second but that’s my particular bias. Siding with economic and political power over cultural considerations may be many things, it is not however particularly praiseworthy or courageous IMHO.

  7. I once went to a night class in Italian; one of the other students was a Scots-Italian who wanted to learn his grandma’s tongue because people in the street had been so rude to him when he was on holiday in Italy. He looked so Italian that they refused to believe that he couldn’t speak Italian. He gave up when he was told that nouns had genders.

  8. What is interesting is how people can make such minute distinctions when they are stereotyping. When I was stationed in Germany, people often would address me in English without much to go on. But when my parents came to vist, my mother found that people always, always addressed her in German – this was in the Rhineland so there was basically no physical differnece to speak of – and seemed confused when she didn’t answer. We decided that people were concluding that she was not of military or military spouse age.

  9. “His parents were forced or convinced to learn English ”
    Question – do you mean forced by cruel colonialists or forced by circumstances? Why would anyone expect to be able to get by in Chinese in what is after all a very mixed place? Sounds like he lucked out. He could have been stuck with Malay.
    “His parents capitulate to Western language aggression”
    I guess it’s the price you pay for committing Chinese commercial aggression.

  10. sredni vashtar says

    Actually, for Singapore (although not for this guy) the Chinese (and their tongue) are as “cruelly colonial” as English, and just as eager to impose cultural dominance.

  11. Interesting variation on the theme, starting from similar sentiment is in Paul Theroux’ book; even if the premise is HK. At least in the love/hate relationship with the British: yes, imperialists, yes, colonizers – but look at all the good it brought to us and – what’s the alternative, China?

  12. Taeyoung: a friend of mine is half white, half Indian (East, that is). She is likewise frequently mistaken for Hispanic, and what’s worse, when she tells people that she doesn’t speak Spanish they’re indignant that she would be so ashamed of her herritage 😉
    When I’m in Europe people can frequently tell I’m American (actually in Italy they tend to assume I’m from the UK, but close enough for me). But more than once i have been mistaken for German.

  13. michael farris says

    I’m often mistaken for being German or Czech(!) in Poland. I can sort of understand the first as anglophone and germanophone difficulties in Polish are often similar and there’s a current Polish tv star who’s German (no Polish family IIRC, learned the language as an adult like me, and I’m told I sound a little like him). I don’t get the Czech thing at all (and when I’m in the Czech republic my not-so-elegant attempts at Czech are met with piteous pseudo-Polish or English).

  14. One day this past week, I took my 78-year-old mother-in-law and 48-year-old sister-in-law visiting from Minnesota on a railpass jaunt to Nagano, Japan. As we got into the elevator to come down from the rooftop of a department store (where we gawked at the surrounding mountains), a lady already on board exclaimed to us about how wonderfully warm the weather was that day. I said no more than “soo, desu nee” before she asked if we were troubled by the high pollen counts in the spring air.
    It was an absolutely normal conversation if we had been in an English-speaking country, but it was all in Japanese, initiated by someone who apparently assumed that an elderly foreign lady and her middle-aged daughter and son-in-law (of unmitigated German-Irish and English stock, respectively) knew Japanese well enough to talk about pollen counts and hay fever. My best guess is that she assumed from our age and humdrum appearance that we were missionaries, and thus likely to know the language. Either that, or she was a member of the worldwide conspiracy of linguistic imperialists who expect everyone to know the national language of any country they find themselves in.

  15. John Emerson says

    I used to know Pacific Islanders who actually had fairly serious problems because they didn’t know Spanish. They just seemed Mexican to everyone, including Mexicans.
    Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans I knew in Taiwan caused confusion, not only because they were monolingual in English, but because their body language and physical type were American. Their genes were perfect, but they weren’t.

  16. “As both my parents were educated in English-language schools (run by Christian missionaries, as most English-language schools were in their day), the family language that I grew up with was English. My parents speak to me in English; all my teenage rows with them were in English.”
    English is his native language. Probably 90% of those who speak English natively has fairly recent ancestors who spoke another language. Most people don’t see any reason to wish their native language anything but what it is. How … normal.

  17. I’m biracial. My father’s native language was Jamaican Creole. My mother’s are Castilian and Galician. My native language is English, and that is a central part of my identity, though I speak all the others to varying degrees. Am I the victim of cultural imperialism? Or does Christopher Culver get to decide what identity and culture I should have? And what gives him the right to do that?
    I’m frequently addressed in bad Spanish by white Americans, asked if I can speak English by black Americans, and panhandled in Spanish by Central Americans. Should I conclude anything from that?

  18. John Emerson says

    I have met Swedish-Americans, born about 1930, whose immigrant parents forbade them to learn Swedish. The parents felt intense anger against Sweden, which was a highly stratified, unequal society in the old days. “We’re Americans now”, said the parents.
    The Swedes are very, very white and not third world at all, but maybe this anecdote can serve as an innocuous example of a general principle — free human beings sometimes do want to reject their native culture, and sometimes with good reason.

  19. caffeind says

    It’s interesting that Singapore has both widespread use of English, and the Speak Mandarin movement, as well as Malay still on the books as the national language but a dead letter.
    Compare Hong Kong, which speaks Cantonese, creates and exports media in Cantonese, expects people to understand Cantonese unless obviously from outside Guangdong, and had little interest or widespread education in Mandarin before 1997. Actually large proportions of the HK population are or are recently descended from speakers of Teochew or Hakka, but I have not yet heard any complaint from them about the dominance of Cantonese.

  20. caffeind says

    English speakers can also distort names by using their expected English pronunciation. In “Geylang”, “G” can be a j, “ey” or “ei” can be as in “guy”, the “a” in “lang” will probably be pronounced as in “language”, not with the Spanish/Italian/Malay a. The Mandarin speaker may not be doing much worse than a monolingual English speaker. For many words, the English speaker will do worse.
    Signs are multilingual in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, so a Chinese visitor who doesn’t ignore the English or Malay text entirely will have some clue of other pronunciations to try if “Yalong” isn’t understood. By the way, the Tamil on signs is a fun way to pick up the Tamil alphabet.
    Singapore seems similar to the US in that it’s consciously multicultural with lots of multilingual signage, but in fact the majority are pretty comfortable with just using their own language(s). The opposite approach is possible. In many places in Europe or Africa, it’s likely that many people can speak several languages, but there is not so much multilingual signage. In Las Vegas, there no multilingual text in order to not put off Anglo customers, but a customer is never far from Spanish-bilingual personnel who can help out.

  21. You’re welcome, Mr. Language Hat. I’m pleased to see this engendered so much comment. For the record, I’ve been (rarely) approached in San Francisco and addressed in Russian (my ancestry is Eastern European) and once in San Jose, CA, and addressed in Spanish.

  22. Go for aesthetic appeal says

    “Compare Hong Kong, which speaks Cantonese, creates and exports media in Cantonese, expects people to understand Cantonese unless obviously from outside Guangdong, and had little interest or widespread education in Mandarin before 1997. ”

    Media export in cantonese from Hong Kong lasted only short term, probably for 2-3 decades since late1970s. This has a lot to do with the political situation in both the communist mainland and the nationalist Taiwan. Such export has been in sharp decline in the past decade. Mandarin has been asserting more and more influence in Hong Kong well before the 1997 handover.

    Hk was only a small fishing village 160years ago when being ceded to the British after the opium war. With much credit to the British’s rule, hk developed into international prominence for its commercial and financial success in last few decades. However such prominence was also a result of direct benefit from the political misfortune in mainland china. Hk’s population sharply increased with influx of immigrants from the war torn china during 1940-50s. These new immigrants were the driving force behind hk’s economic take off in 1960s-70s. The take off benefited directly from China’s 30years close door policy (1949-1979) and the cross strait tension between the mainland and Taiwan since change of power in china in 1949 with the defeated party retreating to settle in Taiwan. Hk became the only channel between china and the west for any trading exchanges legally or illegally. The economic take off set the stage for later entertainment business boom. While hk went into booming, behind the close door China went into 30years of ideology pursuit which later only to be proved a failure and the country ended up backward and poor after 30 years of almost stagnant economic development. China adopted open door policy in 1980 and started economic reform since. The last 30years has seen a twist in media influence between hk and china. That’s back on the track of norm.

  23. John Cowan says

    When my mother visited her native village for the first time in more than 30 years, she was promptly recognized from the back as the daughter of her mother, who had died several years before she left. This before she had said a word; as I’ve said before, her native language was Standard German, not local German.

  24. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    When my cousin (on my father’s side) was in hospital with stroke and I showed up to visit him, I was shown straight to his room with giving my name or showing ID: The nurses were sure I was his brother. (Since his speech was very bad at the time they didn’t know who to expect to show up, except his wife and sons, one of whom also looks very similar to his dad. It’s my grandmother’s genes).

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    It occurred to me just the other day that we probably routinely underestimate how much we resemble our close relatives physically, because we have grown up used to telling each other apart (the opposite of the “they all look the same” phenomenon, which, alas, is quite real and by no means only attributable to racism.)

    My daughter bears a startling resemblance to pictures of my Argentine great-grandmother …

  26. the only one of my argentine [third-at-closest-]cousins i’ve met was (at the time – it’s been 16 years) the spitting image of a particular photo of my father at roughly the same age. i was delayed on my way to visit and walked up the block as he was coming out the door of his building; we recognized each other instantly, having never even seen pictures of each other.

    promptly recognized from the back as

    i think gait/gesture/bodily habitus are a much bigger part of how we recognize and place people than we usually talk about. my sister and i don’t look much alike (she only gets asked for directions by locals in poland; i get it everywhere east of rijeka and south of the tatry), but we’re instantly recognizable as siblings from our gestures. less directly but i think similarly, i once, based on having spent time with a relative who has the same diagnosis, identified a friend’s cat as having cerebellar ataxia.

  27. Experiences I’ve had:

    addressing people in Spanish because they had fully Spanish names (such as Rafael Carranza) only to find out they were Spanishless Filipinos.

    having assumed that because a certain native Nigerian spoke English with a thick “African” accent he must know at least one indigenous language only to find out that his cradle language was English and he knew none of the indigenous ones (presumably either English was the only language both his parents knew or they believed he would advance farthest if he knew English well).

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    I knew a Ghanaian couple who raised their children primarily as English-speaking on the very reasonable grounds that thy themselves had completely different L1s. (Their parents were all four monoglot, so neither could actually communicate directly with their own in-laws, either.)

    Ghana being Ghana, however, I would be astonished if the children didn’t also learn good Twi from their playmates./friends/schoolfellows; but Ghana is in the comparatively unusual position for West Africa of having a de facto African national language, at least as far as the much more populous south of the country is concerned. I don’t think there’s anything quite the same in Nigeria (Nigerian Pidgin would be the logical choice in many ways, but doesn’t have the sort of cachet that Twi does in Ghana. No Ghanaian is likely to at all feel inferior because they speak Twi.)

    Quite a high proportion of Nigerians you meet in Europe are Igbo, and the Igbo seem to be determined to lose their own language for some reason (we actually discussed this on LH somewhere previously.)

    From what Etienne has said about Francophone Africa, it sounds as if it is very common indeed for city-dwelling Africans there to be monoglot French speakers. (Most of my own experience in big cities in Francophone Africa was in Ouagadougou and Lomé, which are each in the middle of large areas that speak single far-from-endangered African languages, respectively Mooré and Ewe, and are probably pretty atypical.)

  29. gait/gesture/bodily habitus are a much bigger part of how we recognize and place people than we usually talk about

    That may be why this description stuck in my memory:

    I noticed, too, how softly she trod and with a gliding motion which, though she was perhaps of a little less than moderate stature, gave an impression of regal dignity—

              et avertens rosea cervice refulsit
    Ambrosiaeque comae divinum vertice odorem
    Spiravere, pedes vestis defluxit ad imos,
    Et vera incessu patuit Dea.

    So the Mantuan said, when Venus appeared and the true goddess was revealed by her gait. She came into the room and was the true goddess as revealed in her movement, and was, but for Divine Grace (if such be granted to a parcel of corruption such as I), my true damnation.
    All the King’s Men

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    I’d be surprised if Venus was short. Beautiful was big for the Romans. Lucretius, in his bravura “love is blind” passage, makes quite a thing about the besotted lover explaining away his beloved’s lack of stature to himself.

    On the other hand, he also represents the lover of a blue-eyed girl (another glaring physical defect) as saying to himself that his beloved is a veritable Pallas Athene, so goddesses could presumably get away with things that mere mortal women could not. Or at least, it was unwise to tell them any different.

  31. David Marjanović says

    I’ve met a French monoglot from Abidjan; apparently that’s common.

  32. It’s not Venus who’s short, it’s the ordinary mortal woman who the guy has just seen for the first time there, who walks like Venus even though she’s short. Maybe I should have quoted more context to make that clearer.

  33. On of my brothers was, as a teenager, indistinguishable in still photographs from his uncle. My sons are similar; the younger one specifically (just turned twelve) specifically grows his hair long so that he will not look like his elder brother did at the same age.

    My father and one of his brothers (ironically, not the one who looks just like my brother) are very, very similar looking. Seeing them together, it could not be more obvious they are brothers. On the other hand, I don’t think I look that much like my father or mother; there are resemblances, certianly, but I wouldn’t have thought they were striking. However, when my first son was born, my parents had just arrived in Bloomington, and we asked them to pick up my daughter from daycare, since my ex-wife and I were both still at the hospital. We told the friend* who owned the daycare about it, and we were told that we needed to add my parents to the pickup list, and they would need identification to verify who they were when they arrived. However, when they got there, and my mom started fumbling in her purse for her driver’s license, the carer’s told her not to bother—since, based on their appearances, they were obviously my parents, and their granddaughter was equally obviously thrilled to see them.**

    * She was genuinely a friend first, before she became our childcare provider. She was introduced to us by another close friend, who has twins at the same time our daughter was born. The daycare owner had a daughter of her own, about nine months older, and she and Lillian became inseparable for the three years they attended together. I remember dropping Lil off one morning, and her friend Allison, who was naturally already there, announced in her typical three-year-old commanding way: “I am going to play with Lillian now.”

    Later, when we were back in Bloomington visiting the university and seeing friends, we mentioned to the mom with twins that were we going to be getting together with the daycare owner the next day. She said, “Oh wow! We know her too!” My response was that that was not an authentic small world phenomenon, since she had been the one who first introduced us!

    ** They subsequently brought Lillian to the hospital to meet her new brother, and they bonded immediately. She was really excited about being a big sister. However, as it became time for her and my parents to leave, she got peculiarly morose. We asked her about it, and she initially didn’t want to say why; however, she eventually admitted that she didn’t want to be dropped off at our house all alone, although she was willing to endure it. We told her no, that although we were soooo proud of her for being so stoic, she was not going to be dropped off alone at the house; she was going to spend the next two nights with her grandparents and aunt at their hotel. She perked right up when she heard that.

  34. Thank you Brett, for those authentic memories.

  35. John Cowan says

    she was promptly recognized from the back as the daughter of her mother,

    I realize now that I misstated this. She was not identified as the daughter of her mother; she was misidentified as her mother.

    vera incessu patuit Dea.

    From Chapter 16 of Gaudy Night (1935):

    ‘Aha!’ said the Dean [of Shrewsbury, a fictional Oxford college for women]. ‘The exquisite gentleman who kissed my feet in St. Cross Road, crying, Vera incessu patuit dean?

    ‘That sounds characteristic. Well, Dean, you have got pretty feet. I’ve noticed them.’

    ‘They have been admired,’ said the Dean, complacently, ‘but seldom in so public a place or after five minutes’ acquaintance. I said to his lordship, “You are a foolish young man.” He said, “A man, certainly; and sometimes foolish enough to be young.” [Wimsey is 45.] “Well,” I said, “please get up; you can’t be young here.” So then he said, very nicely, “I beg your pardon for behaving like a mountebank; I have no excuse to offer, so will you forgive me?” So I asked him to dinner.’

    Harriet shook her head.

    ‘I’m afraid you’re susceptible to fair hair and a slim figure. That in the slender’s but a humorous word which in the stout is flat impertinence.’

    ‘It might have been extremely impertinent, but actually it was not. I shall be interested to know what he makes of to-night’s affair. We’d better go and see if there’s been any more funny business.’

    Nothing unusual was, however, to be observed.

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