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Singapore is effectively a multi-lingual nation. Although English is the main language of Singapore, there are also a multitude of other languages spoken in the country that reflect its multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, as envisioned by its founder, Sir Stamford Raffles.

The greatest visible characteristics about Singapore languages is the tendency for languages to be mixed or influenced from one another. Thus, a spoken language in Singapore, be it English or Mandarin, is often impure when spoken colloquially. It tends to be adulterated to a certain degree and mixed with many loan words from other spoken languages in Singapore.

The Singapore government recognises four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese , and Tamil. The national language is Malay, while English is used virtually exclusively as the working language and in general conversation. The colloquial patois spoken on the streets is a creole called Singlish amongst the locals, but is also known amongst academics in linguistics as Singapore Colloquial English.

English as the main language

English was introduced to Singapore by the British in 1819, when the British established a port and later a colony on the island. English had been the administrative language of the colonial government, and when Singapore gained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, the local government decided to keep English as the working language in order to maximize economic prosperity and because "with English, no race would have an advantage." This is unlike other countries in Southeast Asia which readily adopted their indigenous languages as their national language after ending colonial rules.

The use of English as a common language serves to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. The government of Singapore has actively promoted the use of English as a unifying language between the three major ethnicities in the country. As the global language for commerce, technology and science, the promotion of English also helps to expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy. English is officially the only language of instruction in Singapore's education system. However it is not unheard of for older teachers to instead use other languages, especially when the school in question historically has a non-english language as the main medium of instruction.

The past 30 years has seen a steep increase of the use of the English language, at the expense of Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. The latter part of the 20th Century saw the gradual elimination of the usage of other languages aside from English in Singaporean schools. Although this met much protest, especially among the Chinese community, the Chinese-speaking Nanyang Universitymarker, and other Chinese schools were forced to switch to English or close altogether. As a result, by the turn of the 21st Century, nearly all Singaporeans under 50 are able to use the English language as their first language, although they can also speak a 2nd language such as Chinese, Malay or Tamil.

Bilingualism and Multilingualism

The majority of Singaporeans are at least bilingual, while some can speak three or more languages, due mainly to the multi-lingual environment of Singapore. For instance, most Chinese Singaporeans can speak English and Mandarin Chinese, while some (esp. the older generation) can speak additional Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese or Malay.

Though English is the language of instructions in schools, it is compulsory for students to take a Mother Tongue class, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay or Tamil. This co-existed with the bilingual policy of the Singapore government. Options for non-Vernacular Languages like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu are available. The so-called mother tongue is also used to teach a moral education class in primary school, and the subject is available in Chinese, Malay and Tamil, however, civics classes in secondary school are taught in English.

A student's assigned Mother Tongue is based primarily on race. This language is taught in schools. For example, all Chinese Singaporeans are taught Mandarin Chinese even though their home language may not necessarily be Mandarin Chinese. The reason for learning Mandarin Chinese is because Mandarin Chinese is the only official Chinese language in Singapore. It is also the lingua franca amongst all Chinese languages and the common language spoken amongst Chinese Singaporeans.

Some students may also take a third language class, such as Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, German, French, etc.

As a result, most Singaporeans have at least conversational ability and basic literacy in a minimum of two languages, while many more are conversant in three or more languages, English, their assigned Mother Tongue, and the language that is used at home.

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)
Language 1990 2000 2005
English 18.8 23.0 28.1
Mandarin Chinese 23.7 35.0 36.0
Other Chinese Languages 39.6 23.8 18.2
Malay 14.3 14.1 13.2
Tamil 2.9 3.2 3.1

Mandarin Chinese as a Common Language among Chinese Singaporeans

 See also Singdarin

Mandarin Chinese was introduced to Singapore in the early half of the 20th century, when Chinese schools in Singapore began to teach the language and used it as the medium of instructions for the subjects in Chinese schools. Soon, it became a language spoken by the Chinese-educated in Singapore. In 1950s, the now-defunct Nanyang Universitymarker, the first Chinese-Medium University in Singapore and outside China, was established to serve the growing needs of Chinese tertiary education in Singapore.

In 1965, Singapore became independent, and the Singapore government decided to use English as the working language and heavily promoted English, instead of Mandarin. This was due to economic reasons, the need to promote racial harmony and the policy of minimizing the influence of communism (through chinese propaganda material from China) on Chinese Singaporeans. By 1980s, Chinese education system in Singapore was ended, and the medium of instructions in Chinese Schools was changed to English. However, from the 1980s onwards, Mandarin Chinese was made a compulsory language for all the Chinese Singaporeans to learn in the schools in Singapore.

Despite the presence of a Chinese education system in Singapore, spoken Mandarin was not widespread in Singapore before 1979. This was because many of the Chinese Singaporeans were descendants of immigrants from southern China who spoke various non-Mandarin Chinese languages. Mandarin was spoken only amongst the Chinese-educated and was largely limited to the Chinese schools, the academic studies or Chinese businesses. Outside the Chinese schools, the Chinese in Singapore generally spoke their respective mother tongue Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc. It was not until the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979 that Mandarin-speaking started to become widespread in Singapore.

The Government of Singapore has been promoting the use of Mandarin among the Chinese population with its Speak Mandarin Campaign since 1979. As a result of this policy and through decades of heavy promotion, Mandarin is today widely spoken by the Chinese in Singapore. In present-day Singapore, Mandarin is widely used in mainstream Chinese media, Chinese literature and writing. It is generally spoken as a common language amongst Chinese Singaporeans and for communicating with other Chinese from China, Taiwan, Malaysia etc. Like its English variant Singlish, Singaporean Mandarin also has a creole spoken, known as Singdarin.

The Singapore government sought to promote Mandarin Chinese as a unifying common language amongst Chinese Singaporeans ever since 1979. The initial aim was to bridge the gap between various Chinese dialect-speaking communities in Singapore in order to create a stronger cohesiveness amongst the largest race in Singapore i.e. the Chinese. From 1979 to the 1990s, the campaign has been successful in making Mandarin the language most commonly spoken at home in Singapore. But ever since the 1990s, there has been a shift away from ordinary Chinese Singaporean's use of Mandarin and other Chinese languages in favor of the English language. This occurrence has culminated especially over the past 10 years where there has been a dramatic collapse, coinciding with the maturation of the first students since the forced closure of Chinese language schools in 1985. Some community leaders have sought government intervention, but the government seems to be reluctant to intervene, giving at most token concern to the issue as many realize that this is just the natural progression of events.. Although efforts were made by Speak Mandarin Campaigners to target the English-educated during 1990s and 2000s, by 2004, the number of Chinese speaking English at home had increased dramatically. Fearing that this would dampen the interest in learning Mandarin if this trend were to continue, the Singapore government decided to launch various Speak Mandarin Campaigns aimed at reversing the trend. In the Speak Mandarin Campaign of 2009, Lee Kuan Yew asked Chinese Singaporeans to speak more Mandarin at home rather than English and highlighted the need to reverse the trend of speaking English within Chinese families.

Use of other Chinese Languages

Hokkien was generally the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Singapore before 1979, when the Singaporean Chinese community enjoyed a wide range of broadcasting media in various Non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese etc. However, following the Speak Mandarin Campaign of 1979, the use of Non-Mandarin Chinese languages in Chinese media had been greatly censored, causing many original "native" Chinese languages of Chinese Singaporean to undergo a decline. After 1979, Mandarin began to dominate the mainstream Chinese media in Singapore. Coupled with its official position in Singapore and heavy promotion of the language, as well as the mandatory learning of the language in schools, Mandarin has today replaced Hokkien as the lingua franca of the Chinese community in Singapore.

The use of other Chinese languages, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese, has been declining over the last three decades, although they are still used, particularly by the older generation of the Chinese population. Culturally-minded citizens have accused the Speak Mandarin Campaign of perpetuating linguicide. This is especially due to the fact that the Speak Mandarin Campaign employs censorship and the government resorts to prohibiting the use of these Chinese languages in the mainstream Chinese media after the 1980s. Despite this prohibition, Hokkien and Cantonese continue to be widely-used in present-day Singapore. This was due mainly to the availability of Hokkien media from Taiwan and Cantonese media from Hongkong. Culturally-minded citizens have also sought various avenue to try and maintain connection with their original root Chinese languages, for instance through the internet and social gathering.


Singlish, a portmanteau of the words Singaporeanmarker and English, is the English-based creole spoken colloquially in Singapore.

Although it is a dialect of English, Singlish may be difficult to understand for a speaker of another dialect of English, such as British English or American English. The main difficulties in understanding are Singlish's unique slang and syntax, which are more pronounced in informal speech.

Singlish originated with the arrival of the British and the establishment of English language schools in Singapore. Soon, English filtered out of schools and onto the streets, to be picked up by non-English-speakers in a pidgin-like form for communication purposes. After some time, this new form of English, now loaded with substantial influences from Indian English, Baba Malay, and the southern varieties of Chinese, became the language of the streets and began to be learned "natively" in its own right. Creolization occurred, and Singlish then became a fully-formed, stabilized, and independent English creole.

Singlish shares substantial linguistic similarities with Manglish in Malaysiamarker, although distinctions can be made, particularly in vocabulary. One noticeable difference is that "don't know" in Singlish is "donno", whereas in Manglish, "don't know" is used, although neither is confined entirely to one country or the other.


Malay is the National Language of Singapore and one of the official languages of Singapore. Malay is generally spoken as a common language amongst the Malays in Singapore. Linguistically, most Malays in Singapore speak the Johore-Riau variant of Malay similar to that spoken in the west Malaysian peninsular rather than that of Indonesia. Other older generations of Chinese Singaporean or Indian Singaporeans can also speak Malay.

Other languages

About 60% of Singapore's Indian population speaks Tamil as their native language. Other Indian languages include Malayalam and Hindi.

There are around 5,000 Peranakans living on the island, and they still use the Hokkien-influenced Malay dialect called Baba Malay.

A handful of Portuguese Eurasians still speak a Portuguese-creole known as Papia Kristang. The most fluent speakers however, come from the pre-war generation.

Mixed Language

Colloquially, quite a number of Singaporeans speak a mixed language, juggling between Singlish or Singdarin, with additional mix of other Chinese dialects, Malay and other Indian languages. The tendency for languages to be mixed in Singapore is inevitable because of Singapore's small geographical size and highly concentrated multi-lingual environment. The mixing of languages is also caused by the Singapore government's policy to encourage various linguistic-cultural groups to mix together (instead of staying in isolation) in order to foster greater ethnic harmony and integration. It is also formed when Singaporeans of different linguistic backgrounds inter-marry and speak a number of languages at home, leading to a mixed language to be spoken.

Due to the mixing of various languages, certain languages of Singapore, such as English and Mandarin, appear to be highly adulterated when spoken colloquially, existing in the form of Singlish or Singdarin. They are in general spoken with simpler vocabulary in order to make it easier to be understood. Singaporeans also tend to use various loan words from other languages (esp. their home languages), when they cannot find the right word to use when conversing in a language other than their home languages.

It is quite common to find a Singaporean conversation, which initially starts off with English, can end up in Mandarin, or the other way round, or else code-switch to Hokkien and other Singaporean languages etc.

See also


  1. Lee Kuan Yew, "From Third World To First, The Singapore Story: 1965-2000" Marshall Cavendish Editions p. 170

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