Singapore English

Life in Singapore

Singapore English is the English language spoken in Singapore, of which there are two main forms, Standard Singapore English and Singapore Colloquial English (better known as Singlish).[1][2]

Singapore is a cosmopolitan city with 42% of its population born outside the country.[3] Singaporeans, even those of the same ethnic group, have many different first languages and cultures. For example, in 2005, among Chinese Singaporeans, nearly a third speak English as their main language at home while almost half speak Mandarin, and the rest speak various mutually unintelligible Chinese topolects.[4] In the Indian community, most Singaporeans of Indian descent speak either English or Tamil at home. The English language is now the most popular medium of communication among students from primary school to university. Many families use two or three languages on a regular basis, and English is often one of them. In the past, some children received fewer years of English education than others. As such, the level of fluency in English among residents in Singapore varies greatly from person to person (Berlin 2015).

Classification of Singapore English

Singapore English can be classified into Singapore Standard English (SSE) and Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish).[5] The language consists of three sociolects; Acrolect, Mesolect, and Basilect.[6] Both Acrolect and Mesolect are regarded as Standard Singapore English, while Basilect is considered as Singlish.[7]

Singaporeans vary their language according to social situations (Pakir 1991) and attitudes that they want to convey (Poedjosoedarmo 1993).[8] The better educated Singaporeans who have a "higher" standard of English , tend to speak "Standard" Singapore English (the acrolect). On the other hand, and typically the less-educated or Singaporeans whose first language isn't English, speak Singlish (the basilect).[8] Gupta (1994) said that most Singaporean speakers systematically alternate between colloquial and formal language depending on the formality of the situation.[8] The constant use of both SSE and Singlish has resulted in the gradual emergence of a mesolect, an intermediate form of Singapore English, half-way between formal and informal Singapore English.[8]

Standard Singapore English

Standard Singapore English is the standard form of English used in Singapore. It generally resembles British English and is often used in more formal settings such as the workplace or when communicating with people of higher authority such as teachers, bosses and government officials.[9] Singapore English acts as the "bridge" among different Singapore's ethnic groups[10] Standard Singapore English retains British spelling[11] and grammar. For example, the spelling "tyre" is used instead of "tire", and shopping malls are referred to as "shopping centres".

History of Standard Singapore English

The British established a trading post on the island of Singapore in 1819, and the population grew rapidly thereafter, attracting many immigrants from Chinese provinces and from India.[12] The roots of Standard Singapore English derive from nearly a century and a half of British control. Its local character seems to have developed early in the English-medium schools of the 19th and early-20th centuries, where the teachers often came from India and Ceylon, as well as from various parts of Europe and from the United States of America. By 1900 Eurasians and other locals were employed as teachers.[13] Apart from a period of Japanese occupation (1942-1945), Singapore remained a British colony until 1963, when it joined the Malaysian Federation, but this proved a short-lived alliance, largely due to ethnic rivalries. Since its expulsion from the Federation in 1965, Singapore has operated as an independent city-state. English served as the administrative language of the British colonial government, and when Singapore gained self-government in 1959 and independence in 1965, the Singaporean government decided to keep English as the main language to maximise economic prosperity. The use of English as the nation's first language serves to bridge the gap between the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore; English operates as the lingua franca of the nation. The use of English - as the global language for commerce, technology and science - also helped to expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy.[14] Schools generally use English as the language of instruction, although children also learn the traditional Singapore language to remain strong with their culture and traditions.[15] The standard Singaporean accent used to be officially RP. However, in recent decades, a standard Singaporean accent, quite independent of any external standard, including RP, started to emerge. A 2003 study by the National Institute of Education in Singapore suggests that a standard Singaporean pronunciation is emerging and is on the cusp of being standardised.[16] Singaporean accents can be said to be largely non-rhotic.

Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement

The wide use of Singlish led the government to launch the Speak Good English movement in Singapore in 2000 in an attempt to replace Singlish with Standard English. This movement was made to show the need for Singaporeans to speak Standard English. Nowadays, all children in schools are being taught Standard English with one of the other official languages (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) being taught as a second language. In Singapore, English is a “working language” that serves the economy and development and is associated with the broader global community. Meanwhile, the rest are “mother tongues” that are associated with the country’s culture. Speaking Standard English also helps Singaporeans communicate and express themselves in their everyday life. [17] The Singaporean government recently made an announcement named “Speak Good English Movement brings fun back to Grammar and good English” where the strategies used in order to promote their program are explained. Specifically, it would release a series of videos that demystify the difficulty and dullness of the grammatical rules of the English language. These videos provide a more humorous approach in learning basic grammar rules. The Singaporeans will now be able to practise the grammatical rules in both written and spoken English thanks to a more interactive approach. [18]

Standard Singaporean accent

Like in most Commonwealth countries outside of Canada and Australia, the accents of most reasonably educated Singaporeans who speak English as their native language are more similar to British Received Pronunciation (RP) than General American, although immediately noticeable differences exist.[19] This is the same for people who speak English as their second language.

Malay, Indian, and Chinese Influences

Although Standard Singapore English (SSE) is mainly influenced by British English and, recently, American English, there are other languages that also contribute to its use on a regular basis. The majority of Singaporeans speak more than one language, with many speaking three to four.[20] Most Singaporean kids are brought up bilingual. They are introduced to Malay, Chinese, Tamil, or Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish) as their native languages, depending on their families' ethnic backgrounds and/or socioeconomic status. They also acquire those languages from interacting with friends in school and other places. Naturally, the presence of other languages in Singapore has influenced Singapore English, something particularly apparent in Singlish.[20]

Both Singapore English and Singapore colloquial English are used with multiple accents. Words from Malay, Chinese, and Tamil are also borrowed, if not code-switched, into Singapore English. For example, the Malay words “makan” (to eat), “habis” (finished), and the Hokkien word "kiasu" are constantly used and adopted to SE vocabularies, to the point that Singaporeans are not necessarily aware of which language those words are from. Furthermore, the word “kiasu” has been used in the Singapore press since 2000 without being italicized; Kiasu means "always wanting the best for oneself and willing to try hard to get it".[20] In another journal, "Kiasu" is also defined as 'characterized by a grasping or selfish attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something' (usu. adj., definition from OED (Simpson and Weiner 2000); Hokkien kia(n)su).[10]

Foreign dialects of English in Singapore

Further information: Indian English and Eurasians in Singapore

A wide range of foreign English dialects can be heard in Singapore. American and British accents are often heard on local television and radio due to the frequent airing of foreign television programmes.[21] The Indian accent, spoken by Indian expatriates, can also be heard daily on the streets of Singapore. In addition, accents originating from Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Australia and Malaysia, with some possibly from Latin American countries, can also be heard among the population.

Singapore Colloquial English / Singlish

Main article: Singlish

Singlish is an English-based creole language[22] spoken in Singapore. Unlike SSE, Singlish includes many discourse particles and loan words from Malay, Mandarin and Hokkien. It is commonly regarded with low prestige in the country and is hence not used in formal communication.[1][23]

However, Singlish has been used in several locally produced films, including Army Daze,[24] Mee Pok Man[25] and Talking Cock the Movie,[26] among others. Some local sitcoms, in particular Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd,[27] also feature extensive use of Singlish.

The proliferation of Singlish has been controversial and the use of Singlish is not endorsed by the country government. Singapore's first two prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, have publicly declared[28] that Singlish is a substandard variety that handicaps Singaporeans, presents an obstacle to learning standard English, and renders the speaker incomprehensible to everyone except another Singlish speaker. The country's third and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has also said that Singlish should not be part of Singapore's identity.[29] In addition, the government launched the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to encourage Singaporeans to speak proper English.[30]

Despite strong criticisms of Singlish, linguist David Yoong has put forward the argument that "Singaporeans who subscribe to Singlish and have a positive attitude towards the code see Singlish as a language that transcends social barriers" and that the language can be used to "forge rapport and, perhaps more importantly, the Singaporean identity".[22] Sociolinguist Anthea Fraser Gupta also argues that Singlish and standard English can and do co-exist, saying that "there is no evidence that the presence of Singlish causes damage to standard English".

In 2010, speakers of English in Singapore were classified into five different groups: 1. Those who have no knowledge of English (very few people, most of whom were born before the 1950s); 2. Those who regard English as a foreign language, have limited command of, and seldom speak the language (mostly the older age groups, people, the less educated young);

3. Those who learnt English at school and can use it but have a dominant other language (many people, of all ages); 4. Those who learnt English at school and use it as their dominant language (many people, of all ages); 5. Those who learnt English as a native language (sometimes as a sole native language, but usually alongside other languages) and use it as their dominant language (many people, mostly children born after 1965 to highly educated parents).[31]

As of 2015, English is the most commonly spoken language in all Singaporean homes. One effect of mass immigration into Singapore since 2000, especially from China, has been to increase the proportion of the population to whom English is a foreign language. The trend favours an increasing use of English and stability in Mandarin use at the expense of Chinese dialects (apparently as the Chinese population switches from Chinese dialects to Mandarin, and then to English), whilst Malay use slowly erodes whereas Tamil use continues.

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)[32]
Chinese Dialects 14.312.2
Others 2.32.0

In 2010, 52% of Chinese children and 26% of Malay children aged between 5 and 14 speak English at home, as compared to 36% and 9.4% respectively in 2000.[34]

Other official languages in Singapore

English is one of Singapore's four official languages, along with Malay, Chinese and Tamil.[35] The national language is Malay[35] for historical reasons, as Singapore was part of the Johor Sultanate until the 19th century and was briefly in union with Malaysia between 1963 and 1965. All official signs, legislation and documents are required to be in English, although translations in the other official languages are sometimes included. Under the education system, English is the language of instruction for nearly all subjects except the official Mother Tongue languages (the other three official languages) and the literatures of those languages.

See also


  1. 1 2 Harada, Shinichi (2009). "The Roles of Singapore Standard English and Singlish" (pdf). Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  2. Leith, Dick (1997). Social History of English. p. 209. In writing, the spellings color, program and check (cheque), the form gotten and vocabulary such as garbage and faucet (tap) ... the notion of a native Singaporean English has been separated from that of a Singaporean 'standard' of English.
  3. "Trends in international migrant stock: The 2008 revision" Archived 1 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine., United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2009).
  4. "Chapter 2 Education and Language" (pdf). General Household Survey 2005 Statistical Release 1: Socio-Demographic and Economic Characteristics. Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Republic of Singapore. 2005. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  5. Cavallaro, Francesco; Chin, Ng Bee (2009-06-01). "Between status and solidarity in Singapore" (PDF). World Englishes. 28 (2): 143–159. doi:10.1111/j.1467-971X.2009.01580.x. ISSN 1467-971X.
  6. Harada, Shinichi. "The Roles of Singapore Standard English and Singlish" (PDF). Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Harada, Shinichi. "The Roles of Standard Singapore English and Singlish" (PDF). Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Deterding, David; Hvitfeldt, Robert. "The Feature of Singapore English Pronunciation: Implication for Teachers" (PDF). Teaching and Learning. 15: 98–107. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  9. (PDF) Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. 1 2 Leimgruber, Jakob. "Singapore English" (PDF). Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  11. "What are some commonly misspelled English words?". National Library Board, Singapore. 18 April 2008. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  12. Singapore English.
  13. Gupta, Anthea Fraser (1994). The Step-Tongue: Children's English in Singapore. United Kingdom: WBC Ltd, Bridgend. ISBN 1-85359-230-7.
  14. Alatis, James E; Tan, Ai-Hui (1999). "Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1999" (pdf). United States: Georgetown University Press. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  15. Leimgruber, Jakob R. E. (January 2011). "Singapore English" (PDF). Language and Linguistics Compass. 5 (1): 47–62. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2010.00262. ISSN 1749-818X. Retrieved 2016-04-18. English [...] is also the only medium of instruction in schools [... e]xcept in the elite Special Assistance Plan Schools, where some subjects are taught in the mother tongue. They currently only exist for Mandarin.
  16. Deterding, David (2003). "Emergent patterns in the vowels of Singapore English" (pdf). National Institute of Education, Singapore. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  17. "Creative destruction: Singapore's Speak Good English movement".
  18. "Speak Good English Movement brings fun back to Grammar and good English".
  19. Foley, Joseph (1988). New Englishes: The Case of Singapore. Singapore University Press. ISBN 9971-69-114-0.
  20. 1 2 3 Gupta, Anthea. "Singapore Colloquial English". University of Hawaii. Retrieved 4 August 2014. External link in |website= (help)
  21. "Channel 5 on xinmsn Entertainment". xinmsn Entertainment. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  22. 1 2 Archived 30 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. Mercer, Neil; Maybin, Janet (1996). Using English: From Conversation to Canon. United Kingdom: Routledge. p. 229. ISBN 0 415 13120 0. Another interesting feature of Lee's songs is the (nonstandard) pronunciation of Singapore English speakers in [...] playful use of features of Singaporean English that have strong cultural connotations, Dick Lee is successfully able to [...]
  24. Mair, Victor (21 November 2006). "Wah piang eh! Si beh farnee!". Language Log. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  25. Tan, Hwee Hwee (22 July 2002). "A War of Words Over 'Singlish'". TIME Magazine. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  26. Srilal, Mohan (28 August 1999). "Quick Quick: 'Singlish' is out in re-education campaign". Asia Times Online. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  27. Deterding, David (2007). Singapore English. United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978 0 7486 2544 4.
  28. Au Young, Jeremy (22 September 2007). "Singlish? Don't make it part of Spore identity: PM". AsiaOne News. Retrieved 4 Aug 2016.
  29. "Singapore to launch speak-good-English campaign". Agence France-Presse. 30 August 1999. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  30. Foley, Joseph (1998). "4". English in new cultural contexts: reflections from Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Management. ISBN 0195884159. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  31. Census of Population 2010 Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion (PDF). Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore. January 2011. ISBN 978-981-08-7808-5. Retrieved 28 August 2011.
  32. General Household Survey 2015 p. 18
  33. Musfirah, Hetty (18 January 2011). "Latest census show more younger Singaporeans speaking English at home". xinmsn news. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  34. 1 2 153A Official languages and national language, Part XIII General Provisions, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
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