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Languages in Singapore — Our Bilingualism Policy and More!

When I go overseas, I often get asked, “What languages do you speak in Singapore?”, especially once they learn that out of the languages I speak, Spanish was learnt in school. What’s slightly more surprising is that they often tell me many people in Singapore speak Mandarin Chinese, almost as if thinking out loud, before asking me if I speak it too. To this, I can only reply, amused, “Yeah… I’m Chinese. It’s my mother tongue.”

Since there have been many instances of miscommunication like these, especially when I went to Oxford on the Oxford Seminar 2022, in this blog post, I’ll explain more about the languages in Singapore, what we learn in school, and which languages we speak.

Singapore is a diverse society made up of many cultures, ethnicities and religions. With that comes the diversification of languages we speak here.

In 1867, years after Sir Stamford Raffles discovered Singapore in 1819, Singapore became a crown colony under the British. We then adopted English to be our official working language, and it has remained our common language ever since then.

As Singapore began to develop as a prosperous trading port due to it being a free port and its advantageous geographical location, migrants flocked from Asia to live in Singapore in search of a better life, mainly people from China and India, as well as the native Malays.

Although there were many dialects spoken, especially on the streets of Singapore, we eventually settled on four official languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil.

Though of course, not everyone speaks all four languages, most of the population in Singapore speak two — English and their mother tongue, due to Singapore’s bilingualism policy.

Since the People’s Action Party (PAP) was elected into power in 1959, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP spoke on the importance of a bilingual education system. In Singapore’s context, bilingualism was an emphasis on English, while learning one’s mother tongue as well to strengthen one’s connection to one’s roots and improve one’s sense of cultural belonging.

English as a common working language would also serve to unite the different ethnic groups in racial harmony, ensuring that Singaporeans would always be able to communicate.

The study of a second language was made compulsory in primary schools in 1960, then in secondary schools in 1966. To emphasise the importance of the second language, it was even given double weightage in the Primary School Leaving Examination, or the PSLE, the first significant examination that primary school students had to take at age 12. This implies that, as only the first language (English) and the second language were double weighted, both languages were equally important.

Besides bilingualism, however, Singapore also gives students a chance to learn a third language in secondary school.

Polyglot Club SG holds an annual webinar — Making Your Choice! to educate Primary 6 students on the specifics of choosing a third language, and to provide them with sufficient information on learning a third language, the specifics of which you can find on our blog in an earlier post, “Making Your Choice!”.

Why we do this, of course, stems from Singapore’s third language learning opportunities. In secondary school. After the PSLE, students who achieve commendable results will be able to take a third language in secondary school.

These third languages are split into two main sections — Asian languages and Foreign languages. Asian languages include Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese (Special Programme) and Malay (Special Programme). Though all above languages are offered at the Ministry of Education Language Centres, some schools offer these languages in the campus itself, especially Chinese (Special Programme) and Malay (Special Programme), but this is not the case for foreign languages.

The foreign languages offered are French, Spanish, Japanese and German, and all classes are held at the Ministry of Education Language Centres (MOELC), one at Newton and one at Bishan. The MOELC was set up in 1978 to offer French and Japanese as third languages, followed by German the next year.

Spanish, being the last Foreign language to be added, was introduced in 2014, while Chinese was only offered at MOELC beginning January 2022.

Besides this, a creole language originating from English that developed in Singapore has also become one of the most notable aspects of our unique island country — Singlish. To find out more about Singlish, a language at its most efficient, you can head to my other blog post to see my experiences with speaking on Singlish at international conferences such as Polyglot Conference Global 2022.

To wrap this all up, I hope that everyone has gotten a better understanding of Singapore’s bilingualism policy and of the languages in Singapore — we speak not only English, but our mother tongues, and when turned the other way, we not only speak our mother tongues, but also English!

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