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A Guide to Singapore's Languages

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Singapore is renowned for its rich and diverse linguistic heritage, offering a captivating glimpse into a tapestry of languages and cultures. With four officially recognized languages and a multitude of others spoken by its multicultural populace, Singapore provides a unique window into the world’s linguistic diversity. This article aims to unravel the linguistic tapestry of Singapore, addressing the fundamental question of which languages are spoken in this remarkable nation. We will delve into the historical roots, linguistic characteristics, and societal roles of the official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. Additionally, we will explore the kaleidoscope of other languages and dialects thriving in Singapore

Fast Facts of Singapore's Languages

  • Singapore recognizes four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.
  • Malay holds the distinction of being Singapore’s national language and is considered a symbol of respect for the indigenous people of the country.
  • English takes center stage as the most widely spoken language in Singapore and serves as the primary medium for education, business, and government communication.
  • Singlish, an informal and colloquial version of English, is prevalent in Singapore and bears influences from Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and various other languages.
  • Mandarin enjoys official status as the language of Singapore’s Chinese community, constituting around 74% of the population.
  • Tamil serves as the official language of Singapore’s Indian community, comprising approximately 9% of the population. It also boasts the longest history of education in both Malaysia and Singapore.
  • In addition to the official languages, Singapore is a melting pot of diverse languages and dialects. Some of these include Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, and Telugu, contributing to the linguistic richness of the nation.

Singapore's Official Languages

1. Malay

Malay holds a special place in Singapore as the nation’s official language, paying homage to its indigenous roots. It’s an integral part of Singapore’s identity and cultural heritage. You’ll find Malay woven into the fabric of the nation, from the national anthem, Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore), to various official ceremonies and events. Furthermore, it’s taught as a second language in both schools and universities. Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike appreciate the rich tapestry of Malay music, literature, cuisine, and art.

Approximately 13% of the population speaks Malay, predominantly within the Malay community. The variant of Malay spoken in Singapore is known as Bazaar Malay, a fusion of Malay and Chinese elements. The written form of Malay employs the Latin alphabet, enriched with additional letters like é, ë, and ô. Additionally, Malay has borrowed words from Arabic, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Some common Malay terms include bunga (flower), kucing (cat), rumah (house), selamat (greeting), terima kasih (thank you), and nasi lemak (a beloved traditional dish).

Some common phrases of Malay in Singapore are:

  • Hello: Hai or Apa khabar?
  • Goodbye: Selamat tinggal or Babai  
  • Thank you: Terima kasih
  • You’re welcome: Sama-sama
  • I’m sorry: Maaf or Minta maaf (asking for forgiveness)
  • Excuse me: Tumpang lalu (to pass by) or Maafkan saya
  • Do you speak English?: Bolehkah anda bercakap bahasa Inggeris?
  • I don’t understand: Saya tidak faham or Tak faham (informal)
  • How much is this?: Berapa harganya ini?
  • Where is the toilet?: Di mana tandas?
Singapore's Officia Language Malay

2. Mandarin

Singaporean Mandarin, a variant of Mandarin Chinese, is a native tongue in Singapore. This language boasts two distinctive flavors: Standard Singaporean Mandarin and Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin, often dubbed “Singdarin.” The former is used in formal settings, gracing television broadcasts and radio waves. It’s also the version that gets taught in all government schools across Singapore. On the flip side, Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin is the go-to dialect for everyday interactions among the general populace.

Singaporean Mandarin has absorbed numerous loanwords from different Chinese dialects, notably Hokkien, and also from Singapore’s other official languages like English, Malay, and Tamil. Its rise to prominence within the Chinese community in Singapore can be traced back to the government’s Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979. Today, it stands as the second most commonly spoken language in the nation, following closely behind English.

Some common phrases of Mandarin in Singapore are:

  • Hello: 你好 (nǐ hǎo)
  • Goodbye: 再见 (zài jiàn)
  • Thank you: 谢谢 (xiè xiè)
  • You’re welcome: 不客气 (bú kè qì)
  • I’m sorry: 对不起 (duì bu qì)
  • Excuse me: 打扰一下 (dǎ rǎo yí xià)
  • Do you speak English?: 你会说英语吗? (nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?)
  • I don’t understand: 我不懂 (wǒ bù dǒng)
  • How are you?: 你好吗? (nǐ hǎo ma?)
  • What is your name?: 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shén me míng zì?)
  • Where are you from?: 你是哪里人? (nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén?)
  • How much is this?: 这个多少钱? (zhè ge duō shǎo qián?)
  • Where is the toilet?: 厕所在哪里? (cè suǒ zài nǎ lǐ?)

3. Tamil

In Singapore’s primary schools, students must study a second language known as the Mother Tongue Language (MTL). There are three official MTLs: Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. For students of Indian descent, Tamil is a mandatory MTL. Currently, approximately 3% of Singapore’s population speaks Tamil.

Among the South Indian community in Singapore, Tamils constitute the largest group. They trace their roots to Tamil Nadu in South India and northern Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Many Tamils migrated to Singapore in the 19th century, working as laborers and engaging in trade.

Here are some common Tamil phrases:

  • Vanakkam – Hello
  • Nandri – Thank you
  • Thagaval – Information
  • Vazhthukkal – Congratulations
  • Kaalai Vanakkam – Good morning
  • Mudhal Ezhuththu – Alphabet
  • Kadhal – Love
  • Kanavu – Dream
  • Thirumbi Vandhaal – Welcome back
  • Nalla irukkingala? – How are you?

4. English

English is the most commonly used language in Singapore, with 48.3% of people making it their main language. Many folks in Singapore are bilingual, which means they speak both English and another language. English is the go-to language for things like schooling, business, and government matters in Singapore.

In 1965, after gaining independence, Singapore decided to make English its official language. This choice was made to bring together the diverse groups living in the country, such as the Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians. Using English also helped Singapore become a part of the global economy and culture because English is spoken widely around the world.

However, English in Singapore isn’t the same for everyone. There are different types of English spoken there, depending on a person’s background, education, and situation. The main differences are between Singapore Standard English (SSE) and Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish).

Singapore’s Dialects

Apart from the official languages, Singapore also has various dialects. These dialects are primarily spoken by the older generation and are gradually fading away as younger generations tend to use more English and Mandarin. Some of the dialects you can hear in Singapore include Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and more.

The use of dialects in Singapore has been a subject of discussion for many years. Some people believe that dialects are an important part of Singapore’s cultural heritage and should be preserved, while others argue that they are not very practical for modern communication and should gradually be phased out.

Singlish in Singapore

The Mekong Delta is the only area in Vietnam where you can visit a floating market. Crisscrossed by rivers and rivulets, some villages are often more accessible by waterways than by road. This has nurtured the floating market culture. Unlike the floating markets in Thailand, the floating markets in the Mekong Delta, such as Cai Rang Floating Market, are still the main way for local people to trade. Although you will still see travelers there, it is a good chance to be like a local villager, buying a simple breakfast (pho) in a breakfast boat and tasting this famous Vietnamese delicacy while the beef in the soup is still hot. Trying to bargain when buying fruit is another highlight.

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