For such a small island country, Singapore is home to a lot of linguistic diversity. In this sense, it’s not “what language is spoken in Singapore,” but which are the languages spoken in Singapore, and how have they historically coexisted?
Singapore’s indigenous population was originally Malay, but it was under British colonial rule for much of its history. After the Brits arrived in 1819, other traders came in from China, India and Sri Lanka, and its multiethnic population has reflected this history ever since.
Even with four official languages, Singapore is home to many other dialects and minority tongues that comprise an important aspect of its linguistic identity, persisting in spite of official attempts to phase them out.
Official Languages Spoken In Singapore
Singapore’s four official languages are Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English.
Because of its bilingual education policy, most citizens speak two or more languages — usually English, their ethnic mother tongue, and potentially others.
The national anthem of Singapore is sung in Malay, which was once the national language before British colonization.
The majority of Singapore’s population has roots in China, and as such, Mandarin is the officially recognized Chinese language. This is mostly the result of an intentional effort to standardize languages spoken in Singapore. Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese, Hainanese and Teochew were banned at one point, and Mandarin became the only Chinese language taught in schools. Mandarin is the second most common of the languages spoken in Singapore.
Part of Singapore’s population originally hailed from southern India, so Tamil is Singapore’s official Indian language. However, students also have the option of studying other Indian languages like Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi in school.
The legacy of British colonialism has cemented English as the most commonly spoken language in Singapore’s urban hub, serving as a lingua franca for the country’s ethnically diverse population (and the main language used in business). This was partially a deliberate effort to benefit the country economically after it gained its independence in 1965. In fact, Singaporeans rank as the fifth best non-native English speakers in the world.
As mentioned above, Singapore is home to many speakers of Chinese and Indian dialects.
There was an official campaign in 1979 to promote Mandarin at the exclusion of the other Chinese dialects, partly to unify Singapore’s Chinese community and also to increase its competitiveness in the global business world. The “Speak Mandarin” campaign was rather punitive, and some schools would find students who spoke dialects and make them write “I will not speak dialects” hundreds of times.
There is no longer an official ban, but there remains a generational gap between older Singaporeans and younger ones who never learned their native dialects (but are now slowly beginning to resume interest in learning them). At the time of the ban, Chinese dialects comprised the mother tongues of about three-quarters of the populace.
For the first time in decades, a TV show was recently broadcast in Hokkien, but the effects of this decades-long campaign will be slow (if impossible) to reverse. Only 12 percent of Singaporeans speak a Chinese dialect at home today, down from an estimated 50 percent prior to the campaign.
According to Ethnologue, Singapore’s other unofficial languages and dialects include Bengali, Hakka, Min Bei, Min Dong, Min Nan, Pu-Xian, Yue, Gujarati, Hindi, Javanese, Madura, Malayalam, Orang Seletar, Punjabi, Sindhi, Singaporean Sign Language, Sinhala and Telugu.
One Singlish To Unite Them All
Singapore’s least official (but probably most common and idiosyncratic) language is Singlish, a sort of creole English that incorporates loanwords and elements of Singapore’s other languages and dialects.
Despite the fact that a non-Singaporean would find it nearly impossible to understand (“Wah lau, the movie damn sian” means “I didn’t really like the movie. I found it rather uninteresting”), Singlish has a very consistent grammatical structure, which means it qualifies as a legitimate language unto itself.
However, the Singaporean government has been discouraging its use, similar to its treatment of Chinese dialects. Since 2000, the government’s “Speak Good English Movement” has been promoting “proper English” over Singlish.