Monday, February 8, 2016

Country Profile: The Languages of Singapore

In our last two country profiles, we focused on the languages of two northern European countries: Denmark and Finland. This week we're shifting to the other side of the world to Asia, specifically the 63 islands that make up Singapore, the world's only island city-state.

The Official Languages

Unlike most of the countries we've looked at lately, Singapore has four official languages! The most important of these languages is undoubtedly English, which is the primary language used for business, government, and education. It is also used as a lingua franca for communication between Singaporeans who speak other languages as their mother tongue. There are over 1 million native English speakers in Singapore, as well as another 2 million people who speak it as a second language. The most popular variety of English in the country is Singaporean English, which is derived from British English due to Singapore's former status as a British colony.

Marina Bay, Singapore
While English may be the country's most prestigious language, Mandarin Chinese takes the top spot in terms of number of native speakers. Over 1.2 million Singaporeans speak Mandarin Chinese natively, while another 800,000 or so speak it as a second language. Several other varieties of Chinese (which we'll discuss later) are also spoken in Singapore, so Mandarin Chinese is often used as a lingua franca among the country's Chinese speakers.

Singapore's third official language is Malay, which is also its sole national language. Over 400,000 Singaporeans speak Malay as a native language. Malay was chosen to the be the country's national language after it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, but this mainly gives it symbolic recognition. The most popular variety used in Singapore is standard Malay, but other varieties are also used by smaller numbers of Singaporeans.

Finally, there's Tamil, which is also widely spoken in India and Sri Lanka. There are over 100,000 native Tamil speakers in Singapore, while many other languages native to India are also spoken in the country.

Other Languages

There are over a dozen more languages and language varieties used in Singapore. Several of the most spoken languages are varieties of Chinese. For example, there are over 100,000 native speakers of Yue Chinese and nearly 70,000 Hakka Chinese speakers. There are also over 300,00 native speakers of four different varieties of Chinese that belong to the Min group of varieties: Min Nan Chinese, Min Dong Chinese, Pu-Xian Chinese, and Min Bei Chinese.

As we said earlier, many more languages spoken in Singapore originated in India and the surrounding areas. For example, there are over 25,000 native Malayalam speakers and around 13,000 Hindi speakers in Singapore. There are also under 5,000 speakers of Eastern Punjabi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Sinhala, Telugu, and Bengali.

Last but not least, Singapore is home to between 800 and 1,000 native speakers of two languages commonly used in nearby Indonesia: Madurese and Javanese. Both languages are members of the Austronesian language family.