What do Singaporeans speak? (Part 1)

Recently, I came across this Taiwanese talk show about English spoken by people from different countries. There was a Singapore representative who claimed to understand Singlish… well because I guess he is a Singaporean? But the moment he spoke, I could tell that he probably lived in Taiwan for many years because he lost his supposedly Singlish accent. He spoke with a little Taiwanese accent. I was wondering whether he was aware of that.

People from all over the world do not understand the Singaporean culture. Singapore is a multi-racial country, with each race having their own so-called mother-tongue as defined by the government (Read the next paragraph). You have heard about Singlish, that it is a form of distorted English, but do you think that we only speak Singlish? So I thought about writing, from my point of view, what we Singaporeans use on a daily basis.

As a Chinese Singaporean, 3rd generation, let me tell you that I don’t even know what my native language is. My English is definitely stronger than my Mandarin, although I grew up speaking Mandarin even before formal education. My parents are Chinese-educated, I speak Mandarin to my family, relatives and Mandarin speaking friends. Does that make my native language Mandarin? Then again, my parents grew up speaking Hokkien, so technically, my mother-tongue is Hokkien, isn’t it? Speaking of which, besides able to have a simple conversation with Hokkien-speaking people, I am quite handicap in this mother-tongue. Why? Blame the government for banning the usage of Chinese varieties in media and discouraging families to do so. The government declared that as the Chinese race, our default mother-tongue is Mandarin, which I called BS (Although I do understand the reasons for this policy). I learnt English since kindergarten, or as far as my memory could take me back, and have been using it ever since because English is the medium of instruction in our schools. Does that make my native language English? I came to a conclusion that I have no native language. Just fluent English and fluent Mandarin, and some conversational Hokkien and Cantonese. Also, I do not claim to be 100% proficient in the languages because even native speakers make grammar mistakes.

Let’s move on to proper, based on my personal opinions. As a Chinese Singaporean, I use English and Mandarin to communicate on a daily basis. These two languages can be further divided into:

  • Standard Singapore English (SSE)
  • Colloquial Singapore  English (Singlish)
  • Standard Singapore Mandarin (SSM)
  • Colloquial Singapore  Mandarin (Singdarin)

When do I use SSE and SSM? When I am speaking to non-Singaporeans, simple. SSE follows British English as we were once their colony. However, we are a mix of people from different cultures, so naturally, we did not inherit the British accent. In fact, in the above four variants, the lack of accent defines what we call the Singaporean accent. I would say that SSE has a neutral intonation and Singlish has a distinct flat intonation. When I say neutral I meant we do have rise and fall in pitches where appropriate but without the distinct British or American accent. When I say flat, it is literally, the same tone throughout. SSM follows Standard Chinese as used in China, in terms of grammar, phonology and vocabulary (although some words might differ due to cultural differences). Singdarin is the Chinese version of Singlish, with a mix of words from other languages and screwed up grammar.

Standard Singapore English

To the layman, SSE does not differ from British English in terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. However, I believe linguists can identify subtle differences in the choice of words or way of phrasing sentences. The most obvious difference would be our accent. Like I said, we Singaporeans have a fairly neutral accent. Note that this accent is very different from Singlish. I use SSE in formal situations like presentations and to speak to foreigners who obviously do not understand Singlish. I am using SSE to type this out too, or at least I hope I am.

Colloquial Singapore English (Singlish)

A brief background on the origins of this. Let us take for example Switzerland, another multilingual country with many official languages. If you somehow introduce Mandarin as the working language to Swiss, what would you get? Yes, you will get Germandarin, Frenchadrin or Italianadrin. Then you have like a Swissadrin or something.

Singapore was not an English-speaking country. We have a majority of immigrants from southern China, where Mandarin was not even spoken, at least not during my grandparents’ time. We have immigrants from southern India, where many varieties of the Indian language are spoken. We have our own native inhabitants of this region, the Malay people. When English was introduced to Singapore by the British, do you think everyone gets formal English education? In order to communicate, Singaporeans (wait, was Singaporean even a nationality back then?) learnt on the job. That was how Singlish was born, communicating using broken English and words borrowed from one’s own language. After Singapore gained independence, there was this period of experimentation with the education policy that caused many people, including my parents to sink into a limbo. There were Chinese stream schools and English stream schools. Mandarin was used as a medium of instruction in Chinese stream schools. This further fueled the development of Singlish. It wasn’t until the 1980s or 1990s that English was declared the medium of instruction in schools. By then, Singlish has already matured. I still remember adults in the 1990s pronouncing Milo as “beelo”. This was how screwed up English was in Singapore. As a kid, we follow the adults.

As a Singaporean, I feel comfortable using Singlish in a conversation with a fellow Singaporean. Why? Because there is this notion that using Standard English would appear too formal, which is the context when we do use SSE.

On the technical side, Singlish is mostly spoken in Mandarin grammar, because of the huge Chinese population that contributed to the development of this language.

For example, “Later we go lepak, can?” 

This would mean, “Can we laze around later on?” and it is derived word to word from Mandarin, “等一下(later)我们(we)去(go)休闲(lepak/laze),可以吗(can)?”

Sentences endings are taken from various Chinese varieties and Malay. Some examples below.

Lah(la), leh, lor, from Hokkien, or the Minnan variety.

  • “Just give me lah, talk so much!”
    • “Lah” used as a command, “Just give it to me! And spare the unnecessary words.”
  • “No la, I only want to scare him.”, “Okay la, we go lor.”, “Can one lah, don’t worry.”
    • “Lah” used as a softener and an assurance.
    • “Lor” used as a submission.
  • “Sorry la, talk to me leh. Don’t like that diam diam.”
    • “Leh” as a request, “I am sorry, please talk to me. Don’t stay silent this way.”

Meh, from Cantonese. Interrogative.

  • “Eh, raw leh. You like that eat ah? Can meh?”
    • This means, “Is it alright for you to eat it raw?” 

Sia, from Malay “sial”.

  • “Wah the girl so chio sia!”
    • Envy and emphasis, “Wow, that girl is so pretty.” (Over here, the=that and vice versa. In Singlish, English grammar is not important as long as the message gets across)

This post is not meant to teach Singlish, so these few examples would suffice. I could post Singlish lessons though.

Please, do not try to use them without actually knowing how to use them. Singlish has its own beauty in that the context must be understood to comprehend the sentence ending.

Lastly, Singlish shares its roots with Manglish, or Colloquial Malaysia English. They are very similar but both Malaysians and Singaporeans will be able to tell them apart.

  • A difference could be the more frequent addition of Malay words and
  • Another difference could be the choice of words, such as pon (Singlish) and ponteng (Manglish) which means to play truant.

And yes, we do understand each other even though the choice of words may be different.

This post is getting long, so I will have part 2 talking about SSM and Singdarin.

There you go, Singapore English is not as screwed up as you think. Singlish is used among Singaporeans and we do code-switch between Standard English and Singlish. There will be Singaporeans who may be unaware that they are using Singlish or using a very flat intonation. Let them know politely and they will switch to Standard English, at least for the younger generation who are more educated (sorry old folks, this is a fact).

Regardless of outside opinions, I am somehow proud that we have this form of identity, that we Singaporeans feel more connected using Singlish especially outside the country.



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