10 Common English Words Mistranslated from Chinese and Malay

10 Unique Singapore English
word definitions due to
mistranslated Chinese & Malay:

Action, Christian, Follow, Help, Keep,
Open, Send, Spoilt, Stay, and Scold

There are many differences between the English used in Singapore and that found in Britain and the United States. Some of the features of Singapore English are similar to features in Mandarin Chinese. However other languages, such as Malay, also influence Singapore English.

In many cases, it is likely that the influence for one feature has come from several different sources which serve to reinforce each other. It is useful to raise awareness of these features to help reduce confusion when Singaporeans communicate with other English speakers.

Meaning Shifts

Here are 10 words which have had their meanings skewed due to the translation from Mandarin and Malay:

1. Action (‘berlagak’)

Singapore English:

A verb meaning to boast or show off. It can also mean arrogant and haughty. The word is wrongly used due to confusion of the Malay word “berlagak”, which can either mean “show off” or “to act”.

Examples: “He always likes to action in front of the ladies” (“He always likes to show off in front of the ladies”) “That fellow always like to action, walking around with his Rolex over his shirt sleeves.” “You don’t talk so much, action only!”

Standard English:

Among the many noun definitions of action it is also a verb, and is defined as ‘to take action on or deal with’. e.g. “Your request will be actioned”. Or in other words your request will be dealt with.

So ironically the phrase “That fellow always likes to action” is actually a compliment, he gets things done!

2. Christian (‘ji-du-jiao’)

Singapore English:

In Singapore Christians and Catholics are referred to as two different groups. This difference probably arises because the Mandarin phrase for Protestant is 基督教 (ji-du-jiao), which actually means Christian. Here is an example of this Singapore usage:

“The missionary school consisted mostly of Roman Catholics and Christians.”

Standard English:

There are two types of Christian: Protestants and Catholics. In other words, Christian is a cover term for the two branches of the church.

If you ask someone whether they are Christian and they answer ‘no’, it would be then redundant to ask if they are Catholic. In Western countries, a Catholic is a Christian. 


3. Follow (‘gen’)

Singapore English:

To accompany or go with someone. “You follow me” (which means “You can come along with me”)

The word ‘follow’ is based on 跟(gen1). 跟(gen1) means follow or to go with. The phrase 你(ni3)可(ke2)以(yi3)跟(gen1)着(zhe4)我(wo3) is [you can follow me] or [you can go with me]. Obviously there is confusion for the word ‘follow’, as this does mean to proceed behind. Therefore “you can go with me” or “you can come with me” should be used.

Standard English:

To go after someone, to proceed behind or to come after as in pursuit of.

If you said “I’ll follow you”, this would imply that you will walk behind them like a mad stalker.


4. Help (‘bang’)

Singapore English:

Do something for someone else. “Can you help post these letters” (which means “Can you post these letters”)

Although grammatically correct, contextually this sounds like you need assistance or aid, rather than you need someone to do something for you.

The usage in Singapore is due to a direct translation of the Mandarin word 帮(bang1), which is used in a phrase such as: 你(ni3)可(ke2)以(yi3)帮(bang1)我(wo2)买(mai3) [You can help me buy] or [You can buy for me]. 帮(bang1) has two meanings; “for” and “help”. So it can mean to assist, however it can also mean one person doing something on behalf of another (“for”). The structure is exactly the same, but it should be translated as “can you buy FOR me”.

Standard English:

‘Help’ in this form is to give aid or assistance. “Could you help me carry this table.”

The casual phrase “can you help me buy…” or “can you help post these letters” would seem a little strange in native English speaking countries. This sounds like you need assistance or aid, rather than you need someone to do something for you.

If you asked someone to help you buy water, they would think you were unable to perform the task on your own and need assistance in simple shopping transactions.

5. Keep (‘shou-qi’)

Singapore English:

Put in order or tidy up. For example “Keep your books” (which means “put your books away”)

Another word related to the Chinese direct translation is ‘keep’. “Put in order” or “tidy up” in Mandarin is 收(shou1)起(qi3). The phrase 收(shou1)起(qi3)你(ni3)的(de4)书(shu1) is wrongly converted to ‘[keep your books].

Standard English:

To hold or retain in one’s possession as one’s own. “Please keep the mats” (Take the mats away, you now own them)

Don’t be surprised if someone takes, whatever you asked them to ‘keep’, away with them.

6. Open the light (‘kai deng’)

Singapore English:

To turn on a light – “I open the light.” Derived from Chinese, which uses the verb “to open” in this manner 开灯 (kai3 deng3). Use of “open” to mean “turn on” is limited specifically to lamps or lights.

Standard English:

Move (a door or window) so as to leave a space allowing access and vision. “She opened the door and went in”

7. Send (‘song’)

Singapore English:

To take (i.e. drive) somebody somewhere – “I’ll send you home”. The Singapore English usage of send may be an influence of Mandarin 送(song4).

Standard English:

Send – cause to go or be taken to a destination. “Send” is used when something (or someone) goes away from you, but you don’t go alongWhen you send a letter, you don’t get into the mailbox and go with it.

Be careful, the assumed ending to the phrase “I’ll send you home”, is one of the following:

  • “in an ambulance”
  • “in a body bag”
  • “in little pieces”


8. Spoilt (‘rosak’)

Singapore English:

Broken down. From the Malay word ‘rosak’, which means both ‘broken’ (computer, door etc) and ‘spoilt’ with regards to food.

Standard English:

1. To ruin. For example: ‘She spoilt the movie by telling us the ending’. 2. To pamper. For example: ‘That boy is so spoilt. His parents buy him everything he asks for’. 3. (Of food) To go off or become bad. For example: ‘That food will spoil if you leave it out’.

Toys break; equipment gets damaged; but food spoils and children are spoilt

9. Stay (‘tinggal’)

Singapore English:

To live (in a place). From Malay “tinggal”. – “My grandmother, my aunt and uncle also stay next door.”

Standard English:

Live somewhere temporarily as a visitor or guest. Live is permanent – if you live somewhere, that place is your home, that is where all your things are. If you go away on holiday or on a business trip, you will stay somewhere, most likely a hotel. 

You go on vacation and stay at a hotel, but you live in Tampines.

10. Scold (‘ma’)

Singapore English:

In Singapore English, an adult can scold another adult. This is similar to the Mandarin 骂(ma4). “The following month, she accused her maid of taking a nap when she was supposed to be looking after her eight-month-old baby, and scolded her.”

Standard English:

Scold is only for adults toward children. Instead an adult would ‘have a go’ or reprimand another adult.


It must be emphasised that in most of the instances, the influence might have come from Chinese or Malay, or quite probably from both Chinese and Malay.

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