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Singapore is effectively a multi-lingual nation. Although English is the first 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.

The Singapore government recognises four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), and Tamil.

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English as the first language

Singapore English is an integral part of the Singaporean identity. English is officially the only language of instruction in Singapore's education system.

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 main language in order to maximize economic prosperity. The use of English as the nation's first language serves to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore. 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.[1]

Singapore is unique as it is the only country in Asia which has English as its first language.

There is an increasing trend of Singaporeans speaking English at home. For children who started primary school in 2009, 60% of Chinese and Indian pupils and 35% of Malay pupils predominantly speak English at home.[2] This means that 56% of Singaporean families with children in Primary 1 predominantly speak English at home. Because many Singaporeans grew up with English as their first language in school, some Singaporean Chinese may not be able to speak Mandarin. Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor of Singapore is one such Singaporean Chinese.

Since independence, there has seen a steep increase of the use of the English language, at the expense of Malay, Chinese, and Tamil.[3]

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 University, 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.

See Singapore English

Large percentage of non English speaking foreign workers

36% of the population in Singapore are foreigners and foreigners make up 50% of the service sector.[4] Many foreigners come from China, Malaysia, Philippines and India and do not speak English fluently, if at all. Therefore, many service staff and workers in Singapore may not be able to communicate in English.

Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Quadrilingual warning sign written in Singapore's four official languages; English, Chinese (Simplified), Tamil and Malay.

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

English is the language of instruction in all government schools. All students in government schools are educated in English as their first language. Students in Primary and Secondary schools also learn a second language called their "Mother Tongue" by the Ministry of Education, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay or Tamil. A main point to note is while "Mother Tongue" generally refers to the first language (L1) overseas, in Singapore, it is used by the Ministry of Education to denote the second language (L2). This is due to 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. For example, all Chinese Singaporeans are taught Mandarin Chinese.

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

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)
Language 1990 2000 2005
English 18.8 23.0 29.4
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

Mandarin Chinese was introduced to Singapore (then a British colony) in the 1920s, when Chinese schools in Singapore (as influenced by New Cultural Movement in China) began to adopt Mandarin as its medium. More Mandarin-medium Chinese Schools were founded in the 1930s and 1940, which help to propagate the language.

In 1950s, the now-defunct Nanyang University, the first Chinese-Medium University in Singapore and outside China, was established to serve the growing needs of Chinese tertiary education in Singapore. Mandarin Chinese became the language spoken by the Chinese-educated.

In 1965, Singapore became an independent and sovereign country. The young nation decided to use English as its main language. The use of English was heavily promoted. By the 1970s and 1980s, there were no longer any Chinese schools in Singapore. The medium of instruction in Chinese Schools was changed to English. However, most Chinese Singaporeans continue to take Mandarin Chinese as their second language in school.

Spoken Mandarin only became widespread in Singapore during the 1970s when the government launched its Speak Mandarin Campaign. Prior to that, various non-Mandarin Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese etc were spoken. 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. This is because many Chinese Singaporeans were descendants of immigrants from southern China who spoke various non-Mandarin Chinese dialects.

Other Chinese Languages

Other Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese etc also have a small presence in Singapore.

These Chinese languages have been in steep decline since the independence of Singapore in 1965. They have been replaced with Mandarin Chinese. These Chinese languages are no longer heard in the mainstream Chinese media in Singapore.

Malay

Malay is the National Language of Singapore for historical reasons. 90% of Singaporeans cannot speak Malay. To reflect Singapore's proud Malay heritage, Malay is used in the Singapore national anthem and in military footdrill commands.

Malay is generally spoken by 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. A few older Chinese, Indian and Eurasian Singaporeans can also speak Malay.

Historically, Pasar Melayu, or Bazaar Malay (a pidginised variety of Malay) used to be the lingua franca spoken by all races before Singapore's independence in 1965 [5]. But after Singapore's independence in 1965, the nation had chosen English as its lingua franca, thus replacing Pasar Melayu.

Baba Malay, a variety of Malay Creole influenced by Hokkien and Bazaar Malay, is today still spoken by around 5000 Peranakans in Singapore.

Indian languages

About 60% of Singapore's Indian population speaks Tamil. Other Indian languages spoken include Malayalam and Hindi.

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.

Language Dilemmas, Controversies and Challenges

The bilingual education policy of Singapore aims to make all Singaporeans bilingually effective in English (first language) and a second language. However, the dilemma is that not all Singaporeans are truly bilingual. A large number of Singaporeans are usually better in one language and weaker in the other. For example, some Chinese Singaporeans can only speak English fluently but not Mandarin. Others can only speak Mandarin fluently but not English.

The huge population of non-English speaking foreigners in Singapore also brings with it some new challenges. 36% of the population in Singapore are foreigners and foreigners make up 50% of the service sector.[6] Therefore, it is very common to encounter service staff who are not fluent in English. This poses a problem to some English speaking Singaporeans.

The multi-language society of Singapore also brings with it some unique challenges. Certain places in Singapore may lean towards speaking Mandarin as most of the workers in these places speak Mandarin or Chinese dialects at home; while others may lean towards speaking English.

Neighbourhood coffee-shops, retail stores and supermarkets tend to lean towards speaking Mandarin. Any English that is spoken tend to veer towards Singlish or broken pidgin English.

Fast food outlets, restaurants, the majority of workplaces, cinemas, schools, government services, internationally known stores, banks and shops located near the city central tend to lean towards speaking English. The English that is spoken tend to alternate between Singlish and Standard Singapore English.

See also

References

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Simple English

There are a many languages spoken in Singapore. The reason is that Singapore has a 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.

Contents

English as working language

English was introduced to Singapore by the British in 1819, when the British established a port 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. The use of English as a common language serves to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore.

Bilingualism

File:Quadrilingual danger sign - Singapore (gabbe).jpg
Quadrilingual warning sign written in Singapore's four official languages; English, Chinese (Simplified), Tamil and Malay.

In schools, students are also required to take a Mother Tongue class, where they are either taught Mandarin Chinese, Malay or Tamil.

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 (%)
Language19902000
English18.823.0
Mandarin23.735.0
Other Chinese Languages39.623.8
Malay14.314.1
Tamil2.93.2

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.

Other pages

References



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