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Singapore English

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Title: Singapore English  
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Singapore English

Life in Singapore

Singapore English refers to varieties of the English language spoken in Singapore, of which there are two main forms – Standard Singapore English (SSE) 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 Language at home. The English language is now the most medium form of communication among students from primary school to university. Many households use two or three languages on a regular basis, and English is often one of them. In the past, some children received lesser English education than others. As such, the level of fluency in English among residents in Singapore varies comparably greatly from person to person.


  • Classification of Singapore English 1
  • Standard Singapore English 2
    • History of Standard Singapore English 2.1
    • Singapore’s Speak Good English Movement 2.2
    • Standard Singaporean accent 2.3
    • Malay, Indian, and Chinese Influences 2.4
  • Foreign dialects of English in Singapore 3
  • Singapore Colloquial English / Singlish 4
  • English language trends in Singapore 5
  • Other official languages in Singapore 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8

Classification of Singapore English

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

  • Acrolect; there is no significant and consistent difference from the features of Standard British English (SBE).[6]
  • Mesolect; it has some features distinct from SBE [6]
  1. Question tenses in an indirect form; e.g. “May I ask where is the toilet?”
  2. Indefinite article deletion (copula absence); e.g. “May I apply for car licence?” (Instead of saying "a" car licence)
  3. Lack of marking in verb forms (Regularization); e.g. “He always go to the shopping centre.”
  • Basilect (Singlish);[6]
  1. Generalised “is it” question tag; e.g. “You are coming today, Is it?”
  2. Consistent copula deletion; e.g. “My handwriting not good, lah.”
  3. Use of particles like ah; lah, e.g. “Wait ah; Hurry lah, I need to go now!”

Singaporeans vary their speech according to the situation (Pakir 1991) and attitude that they want to convey (Poedjosoedarmo 1993).[7] For more educated Singaporeans with a higher level of prestige, they tend to speak the Standard Singapore English (the acrolect). On the other hand, and typically in less prestigious circles, Singaporeans who are not fluent in Standard English speak Singlish (the basilect).[7] Gupta (1994) said that most Singaporean speakers systematically alternate between colloquial and formal language depending on the formality of the situation.[7] The constant use of both SSE and Singlish has resulted in the gradual emergence of a mesolect, an intermediate form of Singapore English, between formal and informal Singapore English.[7]

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 proper settings such as the work place or when communicating with people of higher authority such as teachers, bosses and government officials.[8] Singapore English also acts as the uniting characteristic between different ethnic groups[9] Standard Singapore English retains British spelling[10] and grammar. For example, the spelling "tyre" is used over "tire", and shopping malls are instead referred to as "shopping centres". In addition to proper settings, Singaporean schools are often taught in English in order to develop a strong English base for the children to continue practising throughout their lives, helping them in the socioeconomic world.

History of Standard Singapore English

Beginning around 1819, the population of Singapore grew rapidly after the British established a trading post on the island, which attracted many immigrants from Chinese provinces and India.[11] The roots of Standard Singapore English derived from the country's 146 years under British control. Its local character seems to have developed early in the English-medium schools of the 19th and early 20th century, where the teachers were often drawn from India and Ceylon, as well as from various parts of Europe and the United States. By 1900, Eurasians and other locals were employed as teachers.[12] Singapore continued to remain a British colony until it declared independence in 1965. After gaining independence, they joined the Malaysian Federation but this was a short-lived alliance due to the menacing relationship between Singapore’s administration and the federal government in Malaysia causing Singapore to leave the Federation in 1965. Since leaving the Federation, Singapore has remained an independent city-state.

English was 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, serving as the lingua franca of the nation. As the global language for commerce, technology and science, the promotion of English also helped to expedite Singapore's development and integration into the global economy.[13] Schools are often taught in English, although the children also learn the traditional Singapore language to remain strong with their culture and traditions.[9] 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, emerged. 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.[14] 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. So, bilingualism is the country’s official policy. 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. [15] 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, they are going to 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. [16]

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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[18]

Both Singapore English and Singapore colloquial English are used with multiple accents. Words from Malay, Chinese, and Indian are also borrowed, if not code-switched, into Singapore English. For example, the Malay words “makan” (to eat), “habis” (finished), and the Hokkien word "kiasus" 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".[18] 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).[9]

Foreign dialects of English 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.[19] 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

Singlish is an English-based creole language[20] 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][21]

However, Singlish has been used in several locally produced films, including Army Daze,[22] Mee Pok Man[23] and Talking Cock the Movie,[24] among others. Some local sitcoms, in particular Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd,[25] 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[26] 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.[27] In addition, the government launched the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to encourage Singaporeans to speak proper English.[28]

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".[20] 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".

English language trends in Singapore

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 older people, but also some less educated younger people); 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).[29]

As of 2005, English is the second most commonly spoken language in all Singaporean homes.[4] 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 thence to English), whilst Malay use slowly erodes and Tamil use persists.

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)
Language 1990 2000 2005 2010
English 18.8 23.0 29.4 32.3
Mandarin 23.7 35.0 36.0 35.6
Other Chinese dialects 39.6 23.8 18.2 14.3
Malay 14.3 14.1 13.2 12.2
Tamil 2.9 3.2 3.1 3.3

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.[30]

Other official languages in Singapore

English is one of Singapore's four official languages, along with Malay, Chinese and Tamil.[31] The national language is Malay[31] 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. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Trends in international migrant stock: The 2008 revision", United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2009).
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d
  7. ^ a b c d
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b c
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b [1] Archived 30 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ [2] Archived 27 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ a b 153A Official languages and national language, Part XIII General Provisions, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
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