Singapore: The Multilingual Social Experiment
On our quest to seek out all the multilingual places in our world, our next stop takes us to a country whose city streets are said to be some of the cleanest in the world. So if you happen to find yourself heading to the beautiful Singapore, litter is not a word you’ll need in your vocabulary! But what languages would it benefit you to know? Let’s take a look!
Okay, so if you want to be lazy, there is no stopping you from going with the language that you already know! English is spoken by around 32% of the population at home, though some might consider it more of a lingua franca language for the country, with English being generally spoken alongside another language.
English hit Singapore’s shores with good old British colonisation, and since it is a country of the Commonwealth, it seems like English as an official language of Singapore is very much here to stay. In fact, the use of English has increased over the past few decades. Honestly, there is no escape!
Mandarin accounts for around half of the population’s chosen language to speak in their own homes. It is the mother tongue of Chinese Singaporeans, and has been heavily promoted as a language since 1979. The hope with the Speak Mandarin campaign was an economic one, looking to trade and commerce with Mainland China.
However, since English is the language of instruction in most schools, colleges, and universities, and the appeal of English as an international language to the youth of Singapore is a constant, inevitable draw, it means that Mandarin is in fact on the decline in the country.
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Malay is spoken by around 10% of the population of Singapore at home. Its status as an official language is testament to the Malay population living in Singapore, and those who fight hard to keep the language spoken. In 2017 the Prime Minister gave a statement citing Singapore as a staging post for business throughout Asia and the rest of the world, but only if the Malay language was kept alive. His argument was that to remain relevant to the region and to understand the culture of those countries nearest to Singapore, the Malay language had to have just as much importance as the other languages of Singapore.
Tamil is our final official language of Singapore, spoken by perhaps 3% of the population at home—though depending on the statistics you read, this is also lumped in with other Indian-originated languages to give it a higher 9%. Tamil people are the third largest ethnicity in Singapore, and the history between Singapore and Tamil goes back centuries, with the earliest records of settlements in the area that tie the two nations together dating back to at least 1025. Tamil, despite being an official language, is one of the least offered languages in Singapore’s schools, with Dravidian-based languages seeming to take precedent.
Okay, so if there are such sharp contrasts between the numbers of speakers of these four languages, is Singapore truly multilingual? Well, yes. Signage around the country is displayed in all four languages, and should you need to conduct any official business you can do so in any of these tongues. Schools do their best to help their students learn their mother tongue alongside English, meaning that Singaporeans learn Tamil, the Malay learn Malay, and Chinese, Mandarin.
Multilingualism is never perfect and rarely means that every citizen of a country speaks all official languages available fluently, yet this attempt to keep cultures alive through language based on the heritage of families is important!
As with many places around the world with multiple tongues as official languages it is only natural that Singapore would have its own creole. Singlish is an English-based creole with the majority of words understandable to English speakers. What might trip those speakers up is the loanwords from both Chinese and Malay, as well as the predominantly Chinese grammar that underpins it.
The government does not encourage the use of Singlish, advocating for the use of ‘proper’ English instead. But attempts at discouraging and censoring Singlish tends to be met with opposition, with the language spoken in numerous mainstream media outlets, as well as those who conduct interviews for TV and radio on the streets with people who choose to speak Singlish above all else!
So there you have it! There are three main languages you can choose to speak besides English in Singapore, and where is the harm in learning a few helpful phrases in them all? The more the more languages the better!