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Travel Guide > Asia > Singapore

Singapore Languages

  
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In a multiracial, multicultural community like Singapore’s, language becomes a unifying force and a display of national identity. Four official languages are recognized in Singapore; the first three—Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—categorized as ‘mother tongues’ and spoken in general by the Chinese, Malay, and Indian community respectively while English transcends racial divide and is the national lingua franca and language of business.

Malay is the national language although, interestingly, many locals are unable to speak it. Mandarin has grown increasingly important in Singapore with the rising influence of China in the global economy; simplified Mandarin script is taught in schools although many Singaporean Chinese are able to read traditional Mandarin because of exposure to Hong Kong and Taiwanese drama serials. Mandarin spoken in Singapore is a distinctive creole Mandarin that has an intrusion of dialect words.

Dialects are also commonly spoken in Singapore despite the government’s efforts somewhat futile efforts to discourage it. One may hear Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hainanese spoken by Chinese folks while Indian dialects include Malayalam, Pubjabi, and Hindi.

A Little History about Languages in Singapore

In 1965, after the independence of Singapore, a bilingual education policy was instituted with the aim of lessening the usage of English—perceived as the colonial language (language of the master)—and developing the colourful vernacular languages of the people. A nationwide language education campaign—“Speak Mandarin”—was also launched around the period in 1979 to curb the use of dialects prevalent among the diverse Chinese community and unify them through the speaking of Mandarin.

The campaign saw a good response but the policy itself was short-sighted, as English became the global language of business and instruction medium for tertiary education, persuading the government to give priority back to English. Hence, in 1987, English was institutionalized as the official language of instruction in all public schools while mother tongues were regarded as second languages taught to unite individual racial groups and encourage the young to be rooted in their traditions.

In 2000, the growing significance of English worldwide and the rise of Singlish, a local patios language that the government looks upon with disdain, prompted the launch of another nationwide language campaign, the “Speak Good English, Be Understood”. It is a mystery whether this campaign has truly worked, but generally, educated Singaporeans are able to switch from speaking Singlish (mostly when speaking among themselves) to Standard English (used especially when speaking with foreigners) in a blink of an eye.

Singlish

If you're visiting Singapore and hear something that vaguely sounds like English and yet is unintelligible, you have just met with Singlish or Singaporean English: the infamous, extremely fast-paced (like life in the city) patios language of Singapore made up mainly of English with insertions of Mandarin, Hokkien, and Malay words.

A lazy form of speech, it overturns conventional grammatical structure, misplaces stresses, twists syntaxes, disregards pronouns, tenses and pronounciation, and drops ending consonants. Singlish is spoken with a staccato pronunciation, has an unorthodox phrasing rhythm and drags the ending syllables of words while inserting meaningless expressions of lah, lor, leh, mah, meh, hor for emphasis. Direct questioning e-g. “What you wan?” (Standard English: “What would you like?”) and “You wan beer anot?” (“Would you like a beer?”) comes part of the language, without deliberately being rude. In fact, politeness is part of Singapore’s culture with elders being addressed as “aunty” and “uncle” as an indication of respect rather than relation. It's a pity you won't come across such courtesy when boarding a bus during peak hours.

Singlish horrifies the government and futile efforts have been made to curb its usage, but Singaporeans are increasingly accepting this patios language as part of national identity. In fact, one wonders if Singlish is intentionally used as a subtle rebellion to an inquisitive government as most Singaporeans speak Standard English perfectly well.

Hence, when conversing with Singaporeans, begin with standard English and shift to simplified English only if you get no response. Do not try to speak Singlish because a visitor most probably will not get it right and might end up appearing patronizing and condescending instead of funny.

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