Language is the first barrier for a migrant as soon one lands up and clears passport control in an alien land. For a migrant from the hinterland of South Asia, English is familiar but not a friend; and English becomes a cultural resource, and a tool for survival.
The local variant of English makes the language known to the migrant familiar. ‘Singlish’ is a bridge between the local population and the migrant. I have met migrants who speak fluent ‘Singlish’ as having lived in the island for a long time. The lack of knowledge of the language, becomes a constraint in communicating with their bosses, public sector agencies and the wider community in their everyday life.
When a migrant does not have an understanding of English, he forfeits the ability to convey the symptoms of his sickness to the doctor, or standing up to the unfair behaviour from the superiors.
The things that we take for granted such as writing a letter, is a matter of life and death for the migrant. Due to this communicative inequity, the worker’s contract is substituted without his knowledge and legal papers are being forced upon his throat, as he does not understand the language of power, the Lingua Franca called English.
I would like to illustrate a case in point, a migrant brother known as Sromik Monir, a poet with the Bengali Language Literary Group ‘Banglar Kantha Cultural Foundation’ communicates with his superiors and fellow workers in Chinese; the language which he had to learn upon landing in Singapore from Bangladesh as most of his fellow workers are from China.
There are Bangla to Chinese Language books available in the community grocery shops in the mini Bangladesh neighbourhood of Desker Road and Rowell Road. They call their all powerful Chinese bosses as ‘Long Chong’ which has entered the local lexicon of the migrant.
Banglar Kantha, the local Bengali Language newspaper in Singapore publishes a section in the paper on learning the English language. Singaporean Social Enterprise Social Development Initiative conducts English Language Classes for the migrant community. Other Non Profits/Faith Groups also conduct similar language classes for the respective community groups for migrants.
This will be thus truly, empowerment through language.