What’s a ‘yard’?

Why? Because in Singapore, there are no yards.*

There aren’t any sticks measuring 36″, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about that area around your house where there’s grass and plants and trees. Maybe you have a fence, a driveway, a mailbox at the end of the driveway, and a doghouse or a swing set or a vegetable garden in the back behind the patio where you keep your grill.

Nope. Not in Singapore you don’t. Nobody has a yard here.

Nobody grills on his own grill in his own backyard; nobody owns a swing set; nobody’s dog has half an acre to run around in; nobody rakes leaves from the yard in the autumn; nobody’s mailbox sits on a stick among some rocks and plants; nobody’s teenage son gets paid to mow the grass with the lawnmower in the garage.

There’s no autumn, and the mailboxes are all little metal bins built into the wall in sets of ten or twenty in the lobby, and you park your cars— where else?—in the car park (assuming you can afford a car in the first place). In Singapore, you have to bid to buy the right to buy a car because the island has quotas on how many of each size vehicle there are.

Edit: On the other hand, maybe not having a yard is a good thing!


*This is an exaggeration. But to understand how rare ‘landed properties’ are, read about good-class bungalows.

Spell all the words!

My six-year-old students must think I’m omniscient. One of them asked me whether I could “spell all the words”. He wasn’t asking about all the words in the wordlist for chapter three, or something like that; he was asking about all the words in the English language. I think I said that I can spell a lot of words but not all of them because English has so many. Imagine believing that a language has a particular number of words and no more!

Short i

Two of my reading classes did the ‘i’ lesson today. I had to explain ‘chill’, ‘cliff’, ‘knit’, and ‘vanish’. At least a couple of kids in the noon class knew what a ‘vest’ was. (No, ‘vest’ doesn’t have a short ‘i’, but it is one of the words in the short ‘i’ lesson.)

I continue to be surprised by gaps in vocabulary. Plus, half the time, the gaps are gaps they don’t even know are there: when I ask what ‘knit’ was, they think it’s ‘neat’ or ‘need’. Today, they thought ‘vanish’ was ‘Spanish’ or ‘spinach’. Fake homophones abound.

Déjà vu

A few weeks ago I was looking for a book on my language shelves. I noticed a book called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb. Separated from it by two or three books was another book (of a slightly different age and color, but identical size) called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb.

I had never before noticed that there were two copies of that book, not even when I arranged the language book shelves roughly by topic.

My immediate response was to remove the older copy. And to then insert it next to its duplicate on the shelf.

Wear your shoe

Singlish:

“You need to go toilet? Okay, wear your shoe first.”

English:

“You need to go to the toilet? Okay, put on your shoes first.”

‘Wear’ is really not the same as ‘put on’, if you ask me.

Oh, and the whole reason this conversation happens is that kids don’t wear shoes inside schools and enrichment centres, much like nobody wears shoes inside houses here.

Life in Singapore

In October 2008, my husband successfully defended his PhD thesis in computer science. He was awarded a three-year fellowship at the National University of Singapore. His new job (along with a strong interest in foreign cultures) has brought us to the opposite side of the globe. We moved from New Jersey to Singapore, arriving October 22, 2008.

Singapore basics

If you’re scratching your head wondering, among other things, where Singapore is, read on. Or, go read the Wikipedia article on Singapore.

Continue reading Life in Singapore

Why Chinese is hard

This is an articulate, entertaining, informative essay about Mandarin Chinese. You should read it if you are a Westerner living in Asia, if you are considering studying Chinese, if you liked the TV show Firefly, or if you have ever had any contact with one or more Chinese people from China. It will give you perspective.

Pinyin.info:
Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character , as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment.

In other words, the difficulty of the Chinese writing system makes the language hard for native speakers, too. Remember that next time you’re complaining about how ‘arbitrary’ English spelling is.

Object dropping

Singlish:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“I don’t like.”

The object is obvious, therefore there’s no need to express it.

Sometimes you even get subject dropping, too:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Don’t like.”

English:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t like them.”

English (more concise alternative):

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t.”

Here’s a rare case where English is actually more efficient than Singlish. Singlish needs at least two words, while English, arguably, only needs one:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Nope.”

This emphasis on repeating the verb in the question comes from Chinese. There’s no universal word for ‘no’ in Chinese, though sometimes you can sensibly answer questions with “not be”, which gives the sense of “whatever you just said is not the case”.