Languages in Singapore

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Languages in Singapore

Malay may be enshrined in the Constitution as the national language, but in practice the most common language is English, spoken by almost every Singaporean under the age of 50 with varying degrees of fluency. English is spoken much better here than in most Asian neighbours. English is also the medium of instruction in schools, except for mother tongue subjects (e.g. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), which are also required to be learned in school by Singaporeans. In addition, all official signs and documents are written in English, usually using British spelling.

However, the distinctive local patois Singlish may be hard to understand at times, as it incorporates slang words and phrases from other languages, including various Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil as well as English words whose pronunciation or meaning have been corrupted. Additionally, it has an odd way of structuring sentences, due to the original speakers being mostly Chinese. Complex consonant clusters are simplified, articles and plurals disappear, verb tenses are replaced by adverbs, questions are altered to fit the Chinese syntax and semirandom particles (especially the infamous "lah") appear:

Singlish: You wan beer or not? -- Dunwan lah, dring five bottle oreddi.

English: Do you want a beer? -- No, thanks; I've already had five bottles.

It is also inclusive of multilingual references, to events past or current. These can be of the innocuous variety, or they can be satirical or political in nature. An example of the former would be 'mee siam mai hum" (Vermicelli in Spicy Gravy without cockles) - ostensibly the name of a hawker dish, but given another layer of subtext by popular local blogger mrbrown. Practise caution when ordering this particular dish - it will be sure to draw sniggers from the younger crowd (It's a tautology. The dish never contains cockles, and is a malapropism from the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong)

Thanks to nationwide language education campaigns, most younger Singaporeans are, however, capable of speaking what the government calls "good English" when necessary. To avoid unintentional offense, it's best to start off with standard English and shift to simplified pidgin only if it becomes evident that the other person cannot follow you. Try to resist the temptation to sprinkle your speech with unnecessary Singlishisms: you'll get a laugh if you do it right, but it sounds patronizing if you do it wrong. Wikipedia's Singlish article goes into obsessive and occasionally impenetrable grammatical detail, but the sections on vocabulary and abbreviations are handy.

Singapore's other official languages are Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. Mandarin is spoken by most younger Singaporean Chinese while Tamil is spoken by most Indians. Like English, the Mandarin spoken in Singapore has also evolved into a distinctive creole and often incorporates words from other Chinese dialects, Malay and English, though all Singaporean Chinese are taught standard Mandarin in school. Various Chinese dialects (mostly Hokkien, though significant numbers also speak Teochew and Cantonese) are also spoken between ethnic Chinese of the same dialect group, though their use has been declining in the younger generation since the 1980s due to government policies discouraging the use of dialects in favour of Mandarin. Other Indian languages, such as Punjabi among the Sikhs, are also spoken.

The official Chinese script used in Singapore is the simplified script used in mainland China. As such, all official publications (including local newspapers) and signs are in simplified Chinese and all ethnic Chinese are taught to write the simplified script in school. However, the older generations still prefer the traditional style, and the popularity of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture means that even the youth can usually read traditional Chinese.

Who are the People in Your Neighbourhood?

The Big 3 — Chinese, Malays and Indians — get all the press, but there are plenty of other communities with their own little neighbourhoods (or shopping malls) in Singapore:

Arabs : Arab Street, of course
Burmese : Peninsula Plaza, on North Bridge Rd
Chinese : Waterloo Street (Singapore's 'new Chinatown')
Filipinos : Lucky Plaza, on Orchard Rd
French : Serangoon Gardens
Indonesians : City Plaza, near Paya Lebar MRT
Japanese : Robertson Quay and Clarke Quay, especially the Liang Court shopping mall, plus Cuppage Plaza, opposite the Somerset MRT and Takashimaya along Orchard Road
Koreans : Tanjong Pagar Rd
Peranakan Chinese : Katong
Scandinavians : Pasir Panjang
Thais : Golden Mile Complex, Beach Rd
Tibetans : Beatty Lane, near Lavender MRT and Pasir Ris
Vietnamese : Joo Chiat Rd

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