23 November 2010

hor in the speech of Singapore children

I have just finished reading an interesting article by Goh and Ho (2009), describing the speech of children in Singapore.

The study analyses the speech of three six-year-old children who are referred to as A, B and C. The one with the most developed speech is B, and I will quote his narration of a story (p. 53) in full:
One day hor ... one day hor ... got one ... a girl hor she got wear one purple hat ... then suddenly the wind blow away to one tall tree ... so the elephant ... After that, hor, got one elephant ... but the elephant's trunk not long enough, then she asked the monkey. Then the monkey go and take. Then hor she asked the money take her hat so the monkey climbed on the tree to take her hat for her. Then after that she said, 'Thank you'. Finished.
On reading this, I note how articulate this child is, even if he does have five tokens of the pragmatic particle hor (from Hokkien) and also some non-standard word-usage. And one might note that the 84 words that he uses in retelling his story are far more than those by the other two children (39 words and 22 words). In fact, I might even conclude that the use of hor helps child B to tell his story successfully, and I would expect that, in time, he will learn to avoid such particles when writing and when speaking in formal situations.

While the authors of this article also note the greater fluency of child B compared to the other two, they ask "whether or not he would be intelligible to a non-Singaporean listener" (p. 50) and they conclude that "there should be a strong emphasis on the teaching of standard spoken English in Singapore schools from Primary 1" (p. 52).

While they are absolutely right that it is essential for Singapore students to gain a good command of standard English, I wonder if one really needs to worry about this for six-year-old children. And it seems to me that an obsession with standard English and the avoidance of any errors can stifle the creative joy of using language.

Let us now consider the full narrative of one of the other children in this study, child C (p. 53):
The boy kicked a ball and he fell down into the water er ... Into the water ... erm ... one man saved him ... and people clapped...
There aren't too many errors there, but there's not much language either.

So which sample indicates more advanced language development? Quite clearly it is from child B. And I think a strong argument could be made that his regular use of hor is actually an indication that he is developing sophisticated pragmatic linguistic behaviour. I can't see that it is anything to be concerned about.


Goh, C. C. M, & Ho, G. (2009). Talking beyond the here-and-now: Singaporean preschoolers' use of decontextualized lanuguage. In R. E. Silver, C. C. M. Goh, & L. Alsagoff (Eds.), Language learning in new English contexts (pp. 32-54). London: Continuum.