There is no “Singapore language” that is native to all Singaporeans. Singlish comes closest. Here is a quick overview of the languages spoken in Singapore, who uses them, and how they are used.
English: language of administration
If you come to Singapore, don’t worry. You will get around in English. The government and business use English as their first language. Whether you need to get an Internet line, negotiate a deal or order food, English will get you there.
If you call a telephone help desk in Singapore, you can choose your language when you first get connected. Without fail, English is option #1.
That said, especially among the older generation, there are people who do not speak English. Most of these people will speak Mandarin. Or at least understand it.
Mandarin: Frequently spoken
70-80% of Singapore’s population speaks Mandarin. For some, it’s the first language; for most, it’s their second language.
Mandarin is often used in informal and social settings. Singaporeans like to mix their languages, so you will also hear some English and Singlish words thrown in. At times when only Mandarin speakers are around, Mandarin is even used in business discussions. But the eventual documents are almost always written in English.
Malay – National language
Ethnic Malays are now a minority in Singapore. But they were the first inhabitants of the Singapore island, before Chinese and Indian immigrants arrived. For this reason, Malay has the status of National Language. Singapore’s national anthem is in Malay. I have also heard that it is widely used in the army.
It’s quite common to hear people who are not of Malay origin speak Malay in Singapore. Many Malay words have become part of Singlish. Many geographical names stem from Malay, and it is not uncommon for Chinese, especially the older generation, to speak Malay better than English. In fact, elderly Chinese in Singapore may speak their Chinese dialect as the first language, and Malay as their second.
Tamil – Dominant among Singapore Indians
Tamil is Singapore’s 4th official language. It is spoken by most Singapore Indians, who typically tend to have migrated from the Tamil Nadu state in India. Indians currently migrating to Singapore come from all over India, so they are more likely to speak Hindi. So Hindi is gradually gaining importance as well.
Especially among the older generation: Chinese dialects
Early Chinese immigrants to Singapore came from the Southern Chinese provinces. When they arrived in Singapore, they formed close knitted groups with people who had come from the same area. None of these “Southern Chinese” spoke Mandarin as their native language; they spoke local dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Cantonese.
Mandarin speakers cannot understand these dialects. The dialects have become less important and are now mostly used in family situation. This is partly because of government campaigns that have encouraged Singapore Chinese to speak Mandarin at home instead of dialects. I think Chinese dialects are dear close to many Singaporeans’ hearts, but the younger generation doesn’t speak them as well anymore.
Singlish: the derided unifier
Singlish uses grammar and vocabulary from all of the languages above. It is a great unifier and sometimes the only way to communicate. It is unique to Singapore. There’s no other place in the world where you find this particular mix of languages.
If an elderly Chinese lady needs to get her point across to a young Indian guy, Singlish is the way to cross the language barrier.
Singlish is often misunderstood as “incorrect English”. It’s certainly true that if you are new to Singapore, you won’t understand much of Singlish. You’ll hear some English in it, but it’s not understandable. If you are totally new to Singlish, reading about its most common idioms will definitely make you feel more at home in Singapore.
In my eyes, Singlish really should not be considered faulty English, but be better compared to e.g. Creo in Mauritius or Papiamento on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.
I’m coming to Singapore, what language do I need to learn?
English is a must. Almost all business is conducted in English, and you will feel seriously handicapped if you do not speak English. If you speak English, you won’t have a problem getting around, although Singapore is more than English alone. I personally wouldn’t feel 100% at home in Singapore if I only understood English.
Mandarin is often useful. Knowing some Mandarin definitely helps to break the ice. When my Chinese in-laws come to Singapore, they can get around with Mandarin, but there are limitations. I can remember one case where my mother-in-law wanted to buy a certain fish, but the person at the seafood department was a Singapore Indian!
Singlish includes vocabulary and structures from English, Mandarin, Chinese dialects, Tamil and Malay. There are no formal lessons for it, but make some Singaporean friends and they’ll love to teach you some. If you can utter a few phrases, it will be much appreciated by Singaporeans around you.