Singapore has four official languages – English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Among these languages, English is the main business language and it is spoken by the majority of Singaporeans.
Singaporeans are taught to be bilingual from the education system. The local schools follow the Ministry of Education curriculum which uses English as the medium of instruction. A second language (Mandarin, Malay or Tamil) is also taught and this is dependant on the ethnic group of the individual student.
Besides these official languages, Singaporeans speak a casual language called Singlish, which is a hybrid English mixed with influence from the other official languages of Singapore – Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.
The first-generation government leaders had the foresight to introduce the bilingual system which has produced several benefits to Singapore. Firstly, the use of English acts as a common language for direct communication across cultural groups. Secondly, the use of Mother Tongue caters to the different cultural groups and preserve their ethnic identities.
More importantly, with most Singaporeans conversant in English, it allows for a conducive environment for foreigners to settle and work in Singapore. Singapore is the only country in Asia where English is taught as the main language. This makes it a natural place for international companies, especially from the US and UK to set up their Asia headquarters in Singapore. One example is Dyson which has moved its corporate head office to Singapore.
The majority ethnic group is Chinese. Hence, Mandarin is widely used in Singapore and is similar to the official Putonghua in China. In written form, Singapore adopts the simplified version instead of the more complicated traditional version.
Mandarin was actively pushed in the late 1970s to overcome the use of dialect among the sub-ethnic group such as Hokkien, Cantonese, and Teochew. The “Speak Mandarin” Campaign was launched in 1979 and was successful in emphasizing the use of Mandarin over dialect use. During the campaign, mainstream media such as television and radio are only allowed to use Mandarin and regional dialects were banned.
Below, we highlight some of the popular Mandarin phrases for foreigners:
- Hello: Ni hao
- Goodbye: Zai jian
- Thank you: Xie xie
- Sorry: Dui bu qi
The indigenous group in Singapore is Malay. They speak the Malay language locally known as Bahasa Melayu. It is also spoken in surrounding countries like Malaysia and Brunei and is similar to the Bahasa Indonesia language used in Indonesia.
Prior to the arrival of the British in the early 19th century, Malay is the lingua franca as the Malays were the main ethnic group in Singapore. In a nod to its roots, Singapore’s national anthem is sung entirely in Malay and it is called ‘Majulah Singapura’, or Onward Singapore. Primary school students are taught to sing the national anthem in the Malay language.
Below, we highlight some of the popular Malay phrases for foreigners:
- Good Morning: Selamat pagi
- Welcome: Selamat datang
- How are you: Apa khabar?
- Thank you: Terima Kasih
The smallest ethnic group is the Indian and they speak Tamil as the main language. Tamil was used as the bulk of the early Indian settlers arrived from the Tamil Nadu region in southern India. Tamil is also used as the common ethnic language amongst the Indian Muslims, Hindus, Malayalis and Christians, serving to facilitate direct communications between the different Indian sub-ethnic groups.
Below, we highlight some of the popular Tamil phrases for foreigners:
- Hello: Vanakkam
- Please: Tayavua Saydu
- Sorry: Mannikavum
- Thank you: Nandri