Singapore English

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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.[needs update][citation needed] 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.[3] 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,[when?] 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.

Most reasonably educated Singaporeans do speak SSE, which, grammatically, is not different from standard British English, with variations being confined to accent and a few borrowed words, posing few challenges to any Anglophone.[citation needed]

Standard Singapore English[edit]

SSE is the standard form of English used in Singapore. It generally retains British spelling[4] and grammar.[citation needed] For example, the spelling "tyre" is used over "tire". Shopping malls are referred to as "shopping centres" instead of "shopping centers".

Standard Singaporean accent[edit]

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.[5] This is the same for people who speak English as their second language.[citation needed]

The standard Singaporean accent used to be officially RP. However, in recent decades,[when?] 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.[6] Singaporean accents can be said to be largely non-rhotic.[citation needed]

American influences[edit]

Though SSE is based on British English, it increasingly displays traits of American English due to influence from the media. Certain grammar rules are derived from American English – for one, SSE tends to favour collective verbs taking singular verb agreements, as compared to collective verbs taking plural verb agreements in British English. The phrase 'The government is…' is thus more commonly heard than 'The government are…'. American pronunciation of certain words also tend to be more prevalent in Singapore – for example, the British pronunciation of privacy and garage, ˈprɪv.ə.si/ and /ˈɡær.ɑːʒ/ (or /ˈɡær.ɪdʒ/), are rarely used in Singapore by native SSE speakers. A 2012 study also revealed increasing rhoticity (a trait of American English) in SSE native speakers, and the distaste for the intrusive r seen in non-rhotic accents.[7]

History of Standard Singapore English[edit]

SSE's roots may be derived from the country's 146 years (1819—1965) under British colonial rule. 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.[8]

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.[9]

Foreign accents in Singapore[edit]

A wide range of foreign English accents 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.[10]

The Filipino accent is also commonly heard, due to the fact that there are many Filipino expatriates and low-cost workers such as domestic workers living and working in Singapore in a variety of occupations.[11] 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.[citation needed]

Singapore Colloquial English / Singlish[edit]

Main article: Singlish

Singlish is an English-based creole language[12] 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][13]

However, Singlish has been used in several locally produced films, including Army Daze,[14] Mee Pok Man[15] and Talking Cock the Movie,[16] among others. Some local sitcoms, in particular Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd,[17] 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[18] 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.[19] Besides, the government launched the Speak Good English Movement in 2000 to encourage Singaporeans to speak proper English.[20]

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".[12] 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".[citation needed]

English language trends in Singapore[edit]

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).[21]

As of 2005,[needs update] English is the second most commonly spoken language in all Singaporean homes.[3] 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.[citation needed]

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)[citation needed]
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.[22]

Other official languages in Singapore[edit]

English is one of Singapore's four official languages, along with Malay, Chinese and Tamil.[23] The national language is Malay[23] 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[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b "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. 
  4. ^ "What are some commonly misspelled English words?". National Library Board, Singapore. 18 April 2008. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Foley, Joseph (1988). New Englishes: The Case of Singapore. Singapore University Press. ISBN 9971-69-114-0. 
  6. ^ Deterding, David (2003). "Emergent patterns in the vowels of Singapore English" (pdf). National Institute of Education, Singapore. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  7. ^ To r or not to r – social correlates of r in Singapore English
  8. ^ Gupta, Anthea Fraser (1994). The Step-Tongue: Children's English in Singapore. United Kingdom: WBC Ltd, Bridgend. ISBN 1-85359-230-7. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ "Channel 5 on xinmsn Entertainment". xinmsn Entertainment. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  11. ^ "Background of Singapore and Profile of Singaporean President S.R. Nathan", News (Philippines: Office of the Press Secretary), 2007, retrieved 11 April 2008 [dead link]
  12. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  13. ^ 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 [...]" 
  14. ^ Mair, Victor (21 November 2006). "Wah piang eh! Si beh farnee!". Language Log. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  15. ^ [2][dead link]
  16. ^ Tan, Hwee Hwee (22 July 2002). "A War of Words Over 'Singlish'". TIME Magazine. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Srilal, Mohan (28 August 1999). "Quick Quick: 'Singlish' is out in re-education campaign". Asia Times Online. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  18. ^ Deterding, David (2007). Singapore English. United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978 0 7486 2544 4. 
  19. ^ Au Young, Jeremy (22 September 2007). "Singlish? Don't make it part of Spore identity: PM". The Straits Times. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  20. ^ "Singapore to launch speak-good-English campaign". Agence France-Presse. 30 August 1999. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  21. ^ Foley, Joseph (1998). "4". English in new cultural contexts: reflections from Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Management. ISBN 0195884159. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  22. ^ Musfirah, Hetty (18 January 2011). "Latest census show more younger Singaporeans speaking English at home". xinmsn news. Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  23. ^ a b 153A Official languages and national language, Part XIII General Provisions, Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.