Mind your language, please

30 May 1999

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Shakespeare in Love was voted the best picture of the year, its leading actress Gwyneth Paltrow won the Best Actress title and Judi Dench, though she appeared only for some eight minutes was selected the Best Supporting Actress. All well deserved winners.

I saw the movie with Fauzah and we immensely enjoyed it and were delighted Shakespeare in Love won. We also saw Saving Private Ryan and Life Is Beautiful - both are also good and I suggest you see all three. You will agree with me and the selectors that Shakespeare in Love is a worthy winner.

We are so used to hearing the ever-so-precise British actors such as Laurance Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Ian Mekellen. You would not have known listening to Paltrow in the film that she is an American. Her English accent in Shakespeare in Love has been rated by English critics.

Reid attests that the English do not speak English as well as the Americans do and mocking at the Brits, he said or perhaps, in defense to Her Majesty, I should say" they don't speak English as well as we do.

"In British business, media and government, though Professor Henry Higgins had it right, "Use proper English, you are regarded as a freak." Americans try to use proper English, at least, in official discourse and written work.

You will, of course, not hear the last about "shared language" from both sides of the Atlantic. It delights me to hear people speak Queen's English. Judi Dench who played Elizabeth, did speak the Queen's English. As I have not met Dame or Emma Thompson in person, I have no idea if they speak English off screen.

My immediate concern as a concerned Malaysian is: What is the state of Manglish? Before Merdeka and at least a decade afterwards there were three forms of English - excellent English, good English and bad English.

Excellent English was English or British English. Good English was idiomatic English though lacking English accents and lastly Manglish, which was and is simply bad English.

We must try harder to teach English in our schools that is closer to "good American or British English", otherwise our people will find it (if it has not already occurred) impossible to communicate effectively.

Of course, there will be no total breakdowns of communication. What will likely to develop is thus: the Malaysians and Nigerians or Ugandans will employ their local variations of standard English to communicate and I would not be altogether surprised if they can't wholly understand one another.

There are already too many local forms of English which have become mutually unintelligible.

Since Singlish is not unlike Manglish, we will understand each other up to a point. As Singlish adopts more chines expressions and Manglish Malay across the causeway, the two neighbours may have to produce a Singlish-Manglish Dictionary to understand each other.

The ideal situation is when everyone speaks and writes good English besides his or her mother tongue. It is a wish which is difficult to realise though not impossible. I wish more Malaysians will develop and reach a high level of English fluency. It is dream which is rarely fulfilled.

What is worrying and grating even to our ears is that a lot of the flawed English we encounter at home is wrong even by Manglish standards!

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our envoy to the United Nations)

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )