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Top 5 Mistakes Singaporeans Make on the IELTS

The majority of Singaporeans speak Singlish—a colorful and unique Singaporean English that lives by the rules of Chinese grammar and is generously sprinkled with words form Hokkien, Malay and Indian dialects. Although some Singaporeans smartly switch between English and Singlish, for many others, the difference is quite blurred. Having taught IELTS in Singapore for a while now, I have noticed some common mistakes that my Singaporean students make. Here are 5 mistakes that you can read about and consciously avoid:


1. Sentence Shortcuts
As Singlish is heavily influenced by Chinese, a language with blunt and efficient sentence structures, it’s not unusual to hear a protracted English thought like “This is so expensive. How could I possibly afford it?” hacked down to “So expensive! How to buy?” Grammatical endings and tenses are also often ignored. For instance, Singlish speakers would say “You walk so slow” instead of “You walk so slowly”, and “She shop here yesterday” rather than “She shopped here yesterday”.  This is often reflected in the speaking and writing section for IELTS. A way to overcome this problem is to listen to native English speakers on television or watch movies and try to emulate the speaking style. And of course, paying attention to tenses!


2. Crazy Strong Accents
Singapore’s schools tend to emphasize written rather than spoken accuracy when it comes to English, and as a result, many Singaporeans still speak with a strong accent. While everyone is entitled to their own colloquialisms (the British Isles alone have a cornucopia of them), during the IELTS interview section, a strong accent can lose a candidate points. This doesn’t mean shucking your national identity, but it does mean you need to pay extra attention to putting the correct emphasis on words with multiple syllables (i.e., content and cement) and to practice sounds like “th”, which is often pronounced as an f, v, d, s, z, or t. Also, Singlish is spoken at machine-gun speed and pronounced so abruptly that common and simple words become a challenge to native speakers’ ears. For instance, “act”, “cast” and “hold” are chopped to “ac”, “cas” and “ho”.


3. Pluralizing Uncountable Nouns
English has a tortured past when it comes to plurals. One child, two children. One moose, two moose. One goose, two geese. One house, two houses. One mouse, two mice. And so on and so forth. It can be very tempting to just tack an ‘s’ onto the end of a word and hope for the best, but this is a recipe for errors. Especially when it comes to uncountable nouns, like ‘feedback’ or ‘furniture’ or ‘information,’ all of which regularly appear with an ‘s’ in Singapore. Much like you can’t say “There are three airs,” you can’t say “Thank you for the informations.” Despite appearing to be plural, uncountable nouns must be treated as singular nouns.


4. Vanishing Articles and Linking Words
This is another holdover from Singlish’s parentage—Mandarin, Malay and Tamil all forgo articles such as “the” and “a” and linking verbs such as “is”, “am”, “are”, “was”, and “were”, which are imperative in English. Articles and linking verbs are confusing for speakers of Asian languages to master and it’s easy to understand why many people consider them frivolous, akin to adding a hood ornament to a car. The engine of your sentence still functions, but your English will appear to drift from side to side. Articles and linking verbs add direction and focus to your nouns. Eschewing them is the fastest way to tell your IELTS examiner that you didn’t take your English studies seriously.


5. The Ubiquitous “Is it?”
Somewhere along the line in Singlish’s history, the question “Is that true?” devolved into “Is it?” It’s ubiquitously added after all questions such as, “Your friends will be coming this afternoon, is it?”, “You are a student, is it?” or “I should keep the files here, is it?” So, if you have to pose a question in IELTS make sure to frame it the right way!


Hope this helps you to identify and rectify some of your mistakes and makes you more cautious during the IELTS exam! Happy prepping!

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