Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Languages of Singapore

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Hello everyone.

Today, we're going to focus on the languages of Singapore.

Singapore is one of the few remaining city-states in the world,

located in Southeast Asia at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.

The archipelago that makes up Singapore is just a stone's throw away from Peninsular Malaysia,

separated from it by the Straits of Johor.

Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, Singapore is a culturally and linguistically diverse place

and as one of the world's leading financial centres, it continues to attract immigrants and expatriates from around the world.

Singapore was originally a Malay trading port called Temasek around the 14th century and later became known as Singapura.

It eventually fell into obscurity until it was established as a British trading colony in 1819.

From 1963 to 1965,

Singapore briefly became part of the new Federation of Malaysia which was formed from former British colonies in the region.

It then became independent in 1965.

While under British rule, Singapore had a free trade policy which attracted Chinese traders and laborers from Malaysia and China,

and Chinese grew to become the majority of the population.

Also, Singapore and India were under British rule at the same time, which led to a flow of migrants from India.

Today, and for most of Singapore's history,

ethnic Indians have formed the third largest ethnic group in Singapore after Chinese and Malays.

Singapore has four official languages that were chosen to represent the largest ethnic groups in the country

at the time that the Constitution was written.

First, English, due to Singapore's history as a British colony,

Mandarin Chinese to unite the large Chinese population,

Malay, which doubles as the national language of Singapore because it's the language of the indigenous population,

and Tamil to represent the Indian population of Singapore.

On an administrative level, the unofficial lingua franca of the country is English.

And it serves as the main language of instruction in schools, the language of the justice system and the language of business.

The vast majority of Singaporeans are bilingual as a result of the country's education policy

with 73.2% of the population identifying as bilingual or multilingual.

All Singaporeans are now mainly educated in English,

but they're also required to take courses in the "mother tongue" that corresponds to their ethnic background.

That so-called "mother tongue" doesn't necessarily correspond to the student's native language

and it's better to think of it as a heritage language.

Mandarin is the mother tongue assigned to students of Chinese background,

even though the students family might use a different Chinese language, or English, at home.

Similarly, Tamil is the mother tongue assigned to students of Indian background,

even though they may speak a different Indian language, or English, at home.

And Malay is the mother tongue assigned to students of Malay background,

even though some may speak English or another language at home.

Now, let's take a look at each of the four official languages.

The official language most commonly spoken at home is English,

with approximately 36.9% of the resident population speaking it as their first language

with the rest of the population having some level of fluency.

There are very few Singaporeans who speak no English,

and amongst the younger generation basically everybody speaks it fluently.

English was made the main language of school instruction in all government schools beginning in 1987.

Before that, different schools offered instruction in different mother tongues.

Immigrants and expats aside, there are two basic forms of English that are used in Singapore.

First, Standard Singaporean English which is based on the conventions of British English,

but is spoken with a uniquely Singaporean accent,

and an English creole known academically as Colloquial Singaporean English, and more popularly known as "Singlish".

The standard form of the language is highly promoted by the government of Singapore

through state-sponsored programs, such as the Speak Good English movement,

that was specifically started in order to curb the use of Singlish.

But why do they care if people use Singlish?

Well, I suppose that's because they want people to use a form of English

that can successfully be used in academic and professional situations.

But speaking Singlish doesn't mean that you can't speak Standard English.

Standard English and Singlish exists along a sociolect continuum,

meaning that the form of English used depends on the social context.

In the most formal situations people use standard English,

and in the most informal situations, they might use pure Singlish.

And they often mix them to varying degrees depending on the level of formality of the situation.

Singlish is topic prominent, like Chinese or Japanese.

And as such, many sentences will begin by mentioning the topic of the sentence first.

Other noticeable features are that the use of the plural form of nouns, as well as articles and the verb "to be" are all optional.

And also, the grammatical subject can be dropped if it's clear from the context.

Here are a couple of examples of Singlish.

And in standard English, something like:

In this sentence, we see topic prominence, with the topic placed at the beginning of the sentence.

And in standard English:

In this sentence, you can see that the subject isn't included and there's also no auxiliary verb, and there's no indefinite article.

In this sentence, the subject isn't included,

so you would only know who or what is finished from the context of the previous sentences.

And notice the word at the end of the sentence, "lah".

This word emphasizes a statement or assertion. There are other similar words that show uncertainty or indicate that you're asking a question.

These words are borrowed from varieties of Chinese like Hokkien, and in fact, many of the features of Singlish are rooted in those Chinese varieties.

And one more example...

In standard English:

This first sentence starts off like standard English.

But then we see this phrase here: "sibei tok kong".

"Tok kong" is a phrase from Hokkien which means "very good", and "sibei" is an intensifier with a somewhat grim etymology.

In the second sentence, you see the topic placed at the beginning again,

and there's no subject in the sentence, because it's clear from the context.

And then we have this unique adverbial phrase "die die".

Even though the use of Singlish is discouraged by the government,

that doesn't really mean that it's on the decline.

In fact, to many people, Singlish has become a source of local pride and identity.

And just as there have been attempts to stamp it out and to diminish its use,

there has also been a significant amount of pushback from locals who want to prevent it from disappearing completely.

After English, the second most commonly used language at home is Mandarin Chinese,

which is used by around 34.9% of the resident population as a first language.

But if we add to that all of the other varieties of Chinese which are around 12.2% of the population,

then Chinese comprises the largest language group in Singapore.

But to be clear, that's a group of languages, not just one language.

Before the constitution of Singapore was written,

both Mandarin and Hokkien functioned as lingua francas for the diverse Chinese community.

When the Constitution was written in 1965, the government chose Mandarin in order to officially unite the population.

And then in 1979, the government, led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew

started the now annual Speak Mandarin campaign to continuously promote the use and learning of the language instead of other Chinese languages.

This has resulted in an increase in the number of Mandarin speakers

and a decrease in the number of speakers of other Chinese languages.

And I guess that was exactly the intention of that program.

The form of Mandarin used in Singapore very closely follows the conventions of the Mandarin used in China and Taiwan.

However, just as with English,

Mandarin in Singapore has not been able to avoid the influence of other languages and has developed a sociolect continuum, just as English has.

On opposite ends of the spectrum you have Standard Mandarin and "Singdarin" or Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin.

Singdarin is a result of the wide adoption of Mandarin by speakers of other Chinese languages,

as well as contact with languages of the other ethnic communities.

Singdarin seems to have some creole elements, as well as an element of code-switching, especially with English.

The grammar is essentially Mandarin, with a lot of vocabulary borrowed from other Chinese languages, Malay, as well as English;

and sometimes entire phrases or clauses are in English.

Here are a couple of sentences in Singdarin.

In English:

In this first sentence,

we see basically a Mandarin sentence with some English vocabulary taking the place of Mandarin words.

In English:

In the second sentence, we see an English word, and then this word, "buay", is a Hokkien word meaning "cannot".

And this word, "tahan", is a Malay word meaning "tolerate".

These two words often appear together in this phrase meaning something like "I can't stand it".

Other forms of Chinese spoken in Singapore apart from Mandarin and Hokkien include Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and Hainanese.

But the government's promotion of Mandarin is causing it to gradually replace the others.

The third most widely spoken of the four official languages is Malay or Bahasa Melayu,

which is spoken by around 10.7% of the officially resident population.

Malay is also given special status as the national language of Singapore.

As a result of this special status, it's used in the national anthem, in military drills, and on the Singaporean coat of arms.

Malay in Singapore, in its standard form, is essentially the same as Standard Malay as used in Malaysia and in Brunei.

In addition to Standard Malay, there's also a Malay creole called Baba Malay or Peranakan Malay,

which is endangered, but is still spoken fluently by some older people.

The Peranakan are the descendants of settlers who married local Malays.

This contact of cultures resulted in a creole language with mostly Malay vocabulary, but with influence of Chinese grammar.

There's another similar form of Malay called Bazaar Malay or Melayu Pasar, a pidgin form of Malay which has no native speakers.

Decades ago when English was less widely spoken, Bazaar Malay often functioned as a lingua franca.

It's now spoken mainly by some older Singaporeans.

Here's an example of Bazaar Malay. I'll give you a sentence meaning:

First, in Standard Malay:

A more or less direct translation into English would be:

Next, in Bazaar Malay:

A more or less direct translation of this would be:

In the Bazaar Malay sentence, the word for "when" is absent.

And then we see a different way of expressing Singaporean.

In Standard Malay, the word "orang", meaning "person", comes first.

And the modifying word, "Singapura", comes after.

In Bazaar Malay, the modifier, "Singapore", comes before, and is followed by the modifying particle "punya".

This word exists in Standard Malay and means "have", and actually, you can see it as the root of this word right here, "mempunyai".

But in Bazaar Malay, it mimics this Chinese modifying particle.

Let me point out one more difference. In the Standard Malay sentence, you see the word for "hear", "mendengar".

But in Bazaar Malay, you see "dengar".

In Bazaar Malay, affixes are often dropped and the word root is used instead.

The least widely spoken of the four official languages is Tamil,

a Dravidian language that is spoken primarily in Southern India and in some parts of Sri Lanka, and is also spoken by a significant minority in Malaysia.

It has approximately 70 million native speakers worldwide.

In Singapore, 9.1% of the population is of Indian background,

but only 3.3% speak Tamil as their main language at home.

Many ethnic Indians speak English as their home language, or another Indian language, or Malay.

At the time when Tamil was chosen as an official language,

it was spoken by the majority of the Indian population of Singapore.

But the language has declined and is now learned as a second language by the majority of the Indian population,

since it's still their assigned mother tongue.

This information we've discussed so far includes the so-called "resident" population

which is comprised of both citizens and permanent residents of Singapore.

The total resident population is about 3.9 million,

but there's also a large "non-resident" population of about 1.7 million people.

The term "non-resident" is misleading,

and you should think of them as non-permanent residents, or as expatriates

because we're not talking about tourists, these are people who do reside in Singapore.

Having one of the freest economies in the world,

Singapore has attracted a large number of foreign companies and foreign workers to its shores,

making Singapore a cosmopolitan business and finance hub where you can hear languages from all over the world being spoken.

The main lingua franca used amongst these diverse groups of people is English,

with Mandarin also serving as a lingua franca for the Chinese community, both resident and non-resident.

With Singapore granting permanent residents and citizenship to new immigrants every year,

the linguistic situation there will certainly continue to be rich and colorful and vibrant.

The question of the day:

For Singaporeans: What languages do you regularly speak, and in what situations do you use them?

And for other people living in Singapore: What language do you use most often there?

If you speak English, what has been your experience with Singaporean English and Singlish?

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The Description of Languages of Singapore