Singapore, despite being one of the smallest countries in Asia, has a linguistic diversity that many bigger countries can only dream about. A lot of it has to do with the history of this region, as the Malay population, which is considered indigenous, was under British colonial rule for a significant part of their history. Later on, traders from more regions, specifically China, India, and Sri Lanka, joined the Brits, leading to today’s multicultural pot that is Singapore.
Because of this, rather than ask about a specific Singapore language, it would be more appropriate to ask, “What are the languages spoken in Singapore?” as there is more than one. And what are those? Let’s explore.
The Languages of Singapore
When talking about the languages used in Singapore, it’s important to distinguish two categories – national and official languages.
When it comes to the national language of Singapore there’s only one – Malay. Its presence is very much visible in Singapore; if you visit the country, you will notice it used on road signs, but also in official documents. What’s more, the national anthem of Singapore, “Majulah Singapura” (in English, “Onward Singapore”), is also written in Malay.
Despite its status as the national language, only 13% of the population speaks it, which means that it is far from being the most spoken language in the region. The variety of Malay used in Singapore is called Bahasa Melayu.
When it comes to writing, the Roman alphabets, known as Rumi are used. There’s also the Jawi script form, which was based on Arabic. Malay children living in Singapore still learn it in school, and it is considered an ethnic script that can be used on a Singaporean Identity Card.
Some common words and phrases in the Malay language include:
- Se la mat jalan, which means Goodbye
- Ta-hoo-kah ber-da ha sa inggris, which means, Do you speak English
- Terimakasih, which means Thank you
As for Singapore’s official languages, there are four listed in the constitution – the above-mentioned Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil. We’re not going to talk about Malay since we already explained it above, so let’s focus on the other three languages.
A large part of the Singaporean population has its roots in southern China, which is why Mandarin is one of the official languages of the country. Singaporean Chinese uses the same structure and composition, as well as simplified characters, as the Mandarin used in Beijing.
The Singapore government actually made an attempt to standardize the Chinese language being used in the country, and in order to align with China’s official choice of Putonghua, regional dialects, e.g., Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew or Hainanese were banned and could not be used in media channels such as television or radio. Only Standard Mandarin Chinese, also known as Huáyǔ, was permitted. At the same time, it was also the only Chinese language being taught in school.
How does it look today?
Well, the rules have loosened up since then, but other dialects aside from Mandarin still aren’t as commonly used. Nowadays, it is more common to hear them among families at home or when speaking to members of the older generations. While the process to reverse the effects of the ban of other Chinese dialects will definitely take a while, we can see some changes happening already, as for the first time in a while, a TV show in Hokken has been broadcast.
Some common words and phrases in the Mandarin language include:
- Ni hao, which means Hello
- Ni hui jiang Yingyu ma?, which means Do you speak English?
- Xie Xie, which means Thank you
English is the most commonly spoken language in Singapore and could be considered as the lingua franca for the Singaporean business, as well as education. Due to the country’s history, the English variety used in Singapore is based on British English.
Since Singapore is a multilingual country, English is used as a way to unify all of the different communities and ethnic groups living there and using their mother tongues. Aside from that, it helps the country develop and grow on an international level due to the fact that English is the world’s preferred language of choice when it comes to business, science, and technology conversations.
Many Singaporeans are bilingual due to the country’s bilingual education policy – students are taught both English and their mother tongue, which corresponds to their government-registered race, at school. It is estimated that for about 32% of the population in Singapore, English is the first language, with over 70% being able to communicate in it.
Another large part of the population in Singapore, about 9%, comes from southern India. However, it wasn’t until there was a major migration of residents of the Tamil Nadu region that Tamil became established as the official language.
While Tamil is the only Indian language that is officially recognized by the government, other Indian languages are also present in the country, including Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. What’s more, despite Tamil being typically taught in school, students also have the option to study other Indian languages if they wish to do so.
Some common words and phrases in the Tamil language include:
- Kaalai Vanakkam, which means Good morning
- Romba Nandri, which means Thank you
- Alo, which means Hi
There’s also Singlish, which isn’t a distinct language but more a variety of English specific to Singapore that’s used in colloquial settings – it’s not appropriate to use it in formal and business settings, for example, at work. It is characterized by omitting the rules of standard English grammar, as well as vocabulary made of multiple words from the vast number of languages present in Singapore.
Some examples of Singlish words and phrases include:
- Where bas? which means Where is the bus stop?
- Kopi Ais, which means Iced coffee
- Wah liao so expensive lah, which means Why is it so expensive?
What Language Does Singapore Speak – Final Thought
Singapore is a very interesting country with a multitude of languages within it. While many people living there are bilingual, it isn’t uncommon for Singaporeans, especially young ones, to know more than two languages, with popular foreign languages including Japanese, German, and Spanish.
So, as you can see, answering the question, “What is the language of Singapore?” is not as easy as it might seem, as there isn’t one “main” language – instead, there are four official languages, with many others still being used by Singapore’s population despite the lack of official status.
Interested in learning more about languages? Don’t hesitate to take a look at our blog section! There, you’ll find answers to questions such as “How many languages are there in the world?”, “What is the most spoken language in the world?” and more.