There are a multitude of languages spoken in Singapore that reflects its multi-racial society. The Singapore government recognises four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. The national language is Malay, while English is mainly used as the business and working language. 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 working 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. 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 races 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 the main language of instruction in Singapore’s education system.
In schools, students are also required to take a Mother Tongue class, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil or Hindi. The so-called mother tongue is also used to teach a moral education class.
A student’s assigned Mother Tongue is the language assigned as one’s native tongue based primarily on race. This language is taught in schools. For example, all Chinese Singaporeans are taught Mandarin Chinese even though they may speak other dialects like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka or Hainanese at home.
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.
Use of Mandarin amongst Chinese Singaporeans
The Government of Singapore has been promoting the use of Mandarin among the Chinese population with its Speak Mandarin Campaign. The use of Chinese dialects, like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese, has been declining over the last two 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 the Speak Mandarin Campaign employs censorship and the government resorts to prohibiting the use of dialects in the mainstream media. Hokkien continue to be widely-used in present-day Singapore.
Singlish, a portmanteau of the words Singaporean 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 Malaysia, 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.
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.