Thursday, June 15, 2006

Singlish and the left caudate

Interesting article in New Scientist about how bilingual brains switch between different languages. Apparently there's an area of the brain called the left caudate that gets more active when switching between words in different languages (though it also lit up when, in the study, the bilingual volunteers read words in the same language but with very different meanings). Another, quite compelling, piece of evidence for the left caudate's role is the case of a trilingual woman whose left caudate was damaged, and who would switch involuntarily from one language to another.

I wonder what results one would get with Singlish speakers. Singlish is, of course, a dialect of English (maybe even a creole?) whose vocabulary is drawn from many different languages, primarily English, but also the various dialects of Chinese, Hokkien primarily, as well as Malay and Tamil. The Wikipedia entry on Singlish is very comprehensive, so read it to find out more. Would switching between English and Hokkien words activate the left caudate? Of course, there is ample evidence for even the least linguistically sophisticated speaker as to which original language a word belonged to, as their phonologies are very different. But, if Singlish is truly language-y, then perhaps pairs of words that are standard Singlish would behave similarly to pairs of words in another dialect of English.

Of course, there are issues that would need to be cleared up. I would like to know, first of all, whether a person who learned, say, German and English at a very young age and thus has two first languages and is equally fluent in both, would see the same caudate-lighting-up. The New Scientist article itself mentions "bilinguals", but doesn't mention how bilingual they truly are. And, of course, getting similar words in Singlish may be difficult. Hokkien words are usually used as exclamations, modifiers or idioms, as far as I have observed, while English words are used as connectives or if the word is technical.

[DIGRESSION: This isn't Singlish per se, but one good example of the code switching that goes on in Singapore, as well as where the words are used, is a sentence I heard the other day:

Julie 的 presentation 在 哪里?
Julie POSS presentation at where
"Where is Julie's presentation?" ]