23rd June 2021

Singaporeans & The English Language

We understand that we have viewers and readers from all over the world. Some may have visited, and are familiar with Singapore to some degree. Some may be completely foreign to this island city-state that we call The Little Red Dot (on the map). Today’s newsletter is prompted by a viewer’s question:

“What role does the English language play in everyday life in Singapore?”

Great question! Short answer: English is our main language. We use it for everything — at work, at home, as the language of instruction in schools, in administration, etc.

But… that said, you may get a little confused if you were visiting Singapore for the first time and tried listening in on the conversations of the locals around you.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! I thought Thoughtworthy Co said that Singaporeans spoke English?

Let’s delve deeper into the topic!

Background

Singapore has had a bilingual policy since the 1960s. English is our main language, but it’s also compulsory in our education system to learn a second language (most commonly Chinese, Malay or Tamil).

Mandarin Chinese is what we use to communicate with our parents. Our parents are, for the most part, not fluent in English as they were educated in Chinese schools before the bilingual policy had taken its full effect.

For the younger generation of Singaporeans, ourselves included, English is the language that we’re much, much more comfortable with.

Singaporeans' English Proficiency

The EF English Proficiency Index (EPI), as its name suggests, is an attempt at ranking countries around the world (excludes US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) by their proficiency in English. Singapore is the only Asian country that scores “Very High” in the EF EPI, and ranked as high as #3 in the world, just behind Sweden and the Netherlands in 2018.

There are plenty of flaws to the methodology used in this index, but it works well enough to tell the rough story in this case. Our rigorous education system has taught us to be pretty dang good at one thing — taking (and scoring well in) tests! It wouldn’t be crazy to say that in a written test, Singaporeans’ command of the English language is outstanding; among the best in the world!

However, because of how linguistically diverse our culture is (Singapore has four official languages, not including the many other dialects), the range of the population’s English proficiency may be a little wider than in some other countries. The average Singaporean probably doesn’t care too much about how proficient other Singaporeans are in English. The whole point is to communicate with and understand others, and we make full use of the variety of languages that exist in our culture to get the job done.

But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

Accent, accent, accent.

Our accents get quite a bit of attention in our videos’ comment section, and understandably so.

We think what really throws non-Singaporeans off, is that Singaporeans don’t speak like they have a good command of the English language. A lot of that can be attributed to our accents.

Singaporeans who have spent some time studying or living abroad may be exceptions; some may have picked up the appropriate accents depending on which countries they have spent their time in. There are also the curious cases of Singaporeans who speak with a heavy American or British accent despite having never lived abroad. But otherwise, the rest of us “regular” Singaporeans speak with our legendary Singaporean accents.

In fact, it’s more than an accent, what we’re speaking is Singlish. According to Wikipedia, it’s an English-based creole language. There are many oddities, but here are a few key features of Singlish:

  • We can be sloppy with our pronunciation.
    • A common one is pronouncing ‘three’ as ‘tree’
  • We ignore standard English grammatical rules for the sake of efficiency
    • “Where are we heading?” → “Go where?”
    • “What shall we eat for dinner?” → “Eat what?”
  • We integrate words and phrases from our many other languages and dialects into our conversations seamlessly.
  • We tend to speak relatively fast.

So, if it’s your first time visiting Singapore, and you tried listening in on the conversation of two locals beside you at the coffee shop, you would probably end up questioning your ears.

Wait a minute, is that English… or is that not…? I’m so confused!

Most likely, yeah, they’re speaking in English (but Singlish)!

Thoughtworthy Co's Singaporean Accent

Here’s a secret: how we speak in our everyday life is quite different from how we speak in our videos. We go full Singlish when we’re with friends and family.

But we understand that we’re creating content for a global audience, so naturally, we avoid speaking in a way that would be unintelligible to a large portion of our viewers. At the same time, because of how awesome our supporters from all around the world have been, we don’t feel the need to resort to hiding, or even faking our accents.

What else would you like to know more about regarding life in Singapore?

We’ve had a surprising number of questions about life in Singapore. Is there anything in particular regarding life in Singapore that you’re interested to learn more about? Drop your questions into our suggestion box! We’ll gather a list of questions and answer them in bulk in a future newsletter. 

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