Languages in Singapore

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Fraser Howie called my attention to these two articles that look at language usage in Singapore from quite different angles:

"Revealed: The World’s Best Non-Native English Speaking Countries, 2019", by Anna Papadopoulos, Ceoworld (November 5, 2019)

"Singapore has almost wiped out its mother tongues:  Elderly speakers of Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien sometimes cannot talk to their own grandchildren", Asia (Feb 22nd 2020)

From the first article:

The Netherlands has been ranked the world’s best non-native speakers of English in a yearly international ranking. The country overtook last year’s winner, Sweden, which was relegated to second place. Norway completed the top three, followed by Denmark and Singapore.

The report is based on a comparison of English skills measured by testing 2.3 million people, who voluntarily applied to take the test, in 100 countries and over 400 cities and regions.

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, but it is worth knowing that the vast majority of speakers are not “native.” Of the roughly 1.5 billion people in the world who speak English, over 1.1 billion speak it as a second language.

Fourteen countries were placed in the “very high” category: The Netherlands (No. 1), Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Singapore, South Africa, Finland, Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Belgium and Croatia (No. 14).

Here I would add that countries in the "high" category include Hungary (No. 15), Romania, Serbia, Kenya, Switzerland, and Philippines (No. 20).

Papadopoulos continues:

The country with the lowest English proficiency is Libya, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ivory Coast, and Uzbekistan.

Which EU countries are the worst at speaking English?

Italy has the lowest level of English proficiency of any country in the European Union. The country was given 36th place overall and placed in the “moderate proficiency” group.

Joining Italy in the “moderate proficiency” band, and at the bottom of all EU countries, were Spain (35th), Latvia (32nd), France (31st).

The second article focuses on the inability of young speakers of Sinitic topolects in Singapore to communicate with older persons who are still fluent in these languages:

Their language barrier was the product of decades of linguistic engineering. English has been the language of instruction in nearly all schools since 1987, to reinforce Singapore’s global competitive edge. But, depending on ethnicity, pupils study a second language—typically Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. These are intended, as Lisa Lim of the University of Sydney puts it, to add “cultural ballast” vis-a-vis English. In the case of Mandarin, its acquisition has been reinforced by the government’s annual “Speak Mandarin Campaign”, started in 1979.

Mandarin is a standardised version of the language spoken by the people of the vast plains of northern China. Yet hardly any of the Chinese from whom Singaporeans are descended hailed from there. They came instead from the southern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan, and so spoke different languages: Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka, along with two Hokkien-related tongues, Teochew and Hainanese.

The Speak Mandarin Campaign sought to destroy Chinese Singaporeans’ real mother tongues, first by demeaning them as provincial “dialects” of Mandarin when they are in fact mutually unintelligible languages as different as English, German and Danish. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, who started learning Chinese in his 30s, promoted the now discredited notion that humans have a tightly limited capacity for language: Hokkien and all the rest undermined the official bilingualism by hogging chunks of children’s memories. Further, the great tidier disliked the diversity embodied in these languages and wanted to forge a single Chinese identity—reason enough to foist on Chinese Singaporeans an alien language. Lee also thought that China’s opening promised riches to those who could speak its official language.

On the juxtaposition of these two articles, Fraser remarks:

The English Skills one baffled me. If English isn't the native language of Singapore then it doesn't have one in my experience, which in itself is interesting. In the list of 20 countries it is clear what the native language of all the countries are, Dutch, Croatian, Portuguese etc. but it would be wrong to say Singlish is the native language and wrong but for different reasons to state Malay* as the native language.

[*VHM: According to the Constitution of Singapore, the national language of Singapore is Malay.

The other piece reflects a common problem here, loss of topolects but also the poor standard of Mandarin. I was pleased to learn about classes in Canto, Teochew and Hokkien. I am planning to go to all!

How do you like that?  A country without a functioning national language — though English is the de facto national language of Singapore.


Selected readings


  1. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 2:08 pm

    > How do you like that? A country without a functioning national language — though English is the de facto national language of Singapore.

    One-sixth of the world lives in a country with no national language: how is it surprising in 2020 that a country can function without a national language?

    (Yes, I understand Prof. Mair wouldn't be surprised. But that he expects his audience to be surprised is itself surprising to me).

  2. Jim said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 7:15 pm

    1) Having been to Hungary and Serbia quite a bit, I'd dispute the attributed levels of English proficiency. Outside Budapest one found very few people who knew anything but Hungarian; older people would try German, perhaps. And I found few people even in Belgrade who knew any English.

    2) So what was Lee Kwan-Yew's native language, then, if not ‘Chinese’?

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 8:44 pm

    I'm pretty sure the ultimate source of that first story is this:

    It's a private company that sells english courses, so…. yeah….

    On the second story, some years ago I reviewed a book on endangered languages and my main takeaway was that it depends on the attitude speakers have toward the language. If they think it's worth speaking for its own sake (apart from other considerations) then it can withstand extreme prolonged pressure to eradicate it.
    If speakers prioritize material gain (or social advancement, kind of the same thing) then the language will be much more fragile.

  4. nbl said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 9:09 pm

    In reply to Jim, Lee Kuan Yew grew up speaking English and Malay, His father was a staunch admirer of the British colonial rulers, and in his (Lee Kuan Yew's) childhood in the 1930s, Malay was much more commonly spoken than it is today, especially as a lingua franca between different ethnic groups.

    (He also learnt Latin as part of a classical and legal education, and Japanese during the Japanese Occupation of WW2.)

    He only picked up Mandarin and Hokkien in adulthood when it became politically expedient to engage the Chinese-speaking population to garner votes.

  5. Johannes said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 9:26 pm

    Did he not speak a bit of Hakka, his ancestral language (if not mother tongue)…?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 10:39 pm

    Jim, I don't think they were setting out to identify the countries with the highest proportion of proficient L($n, n>1$) English speakers, but rather to identify the countries in which, among whatever proportion of the population could speak English, the English language skills (e.g., "could pass as a native speaker") were higher than comparable groups in other countries. And on that metric, I would certainly agree (based solely on personal experience) that the Netherlands and Sweden should probably be right at the top. My exposure to native Hungarian speakers is not as great, but whilst I would agree that English language skills are not widespread in Hungary, those Hungarians that do speak English tend (solely in my experience, once again) to speak it very well.

    But what I wonder is whether there are good phonetic/phonolgical reasons for this — is it, for example, easier for a native Nederlands speaker to speak near-perfect English that a native French speaker because English and Dutch phonologies are more similar than English and French ? In other words, do the findings tell us more about languages than they do about races ?

  7. ajay said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 11:04 pm

    VHM: According to the Constitution of Singapore, the national language of Singapore is Malay.

    That is really surprising. You certainly wouldn't guess that from looking at street signs, etc.

    how is it surprising in 2020 that a country can function without a national language?

    Well, to pick nits, it's not surprising that a country can do without a national language; it's surprising that a country can have an official national language that doesn't actually function as one.

    I wonder what other countries there are with a constitutionally-mandated national language that is so infrequently spoken by its actual citizens; apparently only 10% of Singaporeans speak Malay at home. It would be less incongruous for the sole national language of the US to be Spanish (12%).

  8. David Marjanović said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 11:12 pm

    Somewhat relatedly, the government of the PRC now quietly and suddenly admits that even the varieties of Mandarin aren't all mutually intelligible: it is publishing bi-topolectal information in Hubei.

  9. Leo said,

    March 3, 2020 @ 11:39 pm

    ajay: According to Wikipedia, Urdu is only spoken natively by 7.6% of Pakistan's population, despite being the 'sole national, and one of the two official languages'.

  10. Twill said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 12:28 am

    "Official language little spoken among the general populace" describes the linguistic situation in much of Africa. What is more remarkable in the case of Singapore is that Malay is not a prestige language, seldom spoken in the halls of power, and has also fallen into being a second-class minority language. Malay in Singapore could perhaps go the way of Irish (though the great virility of the language in neighboring countries makes the analogy less apt).

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 2:53 am

    Haiti's official language is French, but it is said to be spoken by only 10% of the population.

  12. Rose Eneri said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 2:55 am

    It certainly is not surprising that the native languages of the most proficient English speakers are mostly Germanic and thus, closely related to English.

    The only proficient-in-English countries I find interesting are the ones with non-Germanic native languages.

  13. ajay said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 5:07 am

    Leo, Twill: thanks, good point. But presumably most people in Pakistan can function in Urdu, even if it isn't their L1? It isn't my impression that the majority of people in Singapore have got anywhere like functional Malay.

  14. Leo said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 8:43 am

    ajay – true, Urdu may present less of a barrier for non-native speakers than in the Malay case, as it does at least belong to the same Indo-European family as Pakistan's other major languages.

  15. A1987dM said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 9:36 am


    Irish in Ireland?

  16. stephen reeves said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    I Irish is an official language of the Republic, yet very few speak it US doesn’t have an official language

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    Coby Lubliner: Creole and French were made Haiti's official languages in Article 5 of the Constitution of 1987. I'm having trouble finding the Constitution of 2012 on line, but on-line sources such as the CIA Factbook say both languages are official.

  18. Julian said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 4:22 pm

    'testing people who voluntarily applied to take the test "
    Non-random sample = results have unknown bias and gave no probative value.

  19. ajay said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 11:10 pm

    Irish in Ireland?

    Hmm. 41% of the population claim to be able to speak it (though very few as L1) and it's compulsory, I believe, to learn Irish in school – not quite as bad a situation as Malay in Singapore.

  20. Phillip Helbig said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 11:17 pm

    "But what I wonder is whether there are good phonetic/phonolgical reasons for this — is it, for example, easier for a native Nederlands speaker to speak near-perfect English that a native French speaker because English and Dutch phonologies are more similar than English and French ? In other words, do the findings tell us more about languages than they do about races ?"

    Presumably you mean "races" not in a genetic sense (which does exist), but in the sense of "cultural environment".

    I am a native speaker of (only) English, fluent in German (I've lived most of my life in Germany, though was an adult knowing little German when I moved here), then come Swedish (B2/C1), Dutch (B2), and French (B1). I would say that, for the normal English speaker, Dutch pronunciation is at least as difficult as French. French is more difficult because it is a Romance language and because of the complex orthography (not as bad as English, but very different) and, while the pronunciation might be more difficult than, say, Spanish or Italian for the average English speaker, it is certainly not more difficult than Dutch, probably less so.

    The main factor in the difference in language proficiency between countries is exposure: what languages are taught in schools from what age and, very important, what fraction of television and cinema is foreign-language. Those are certainly the reasons why the Nordic countries and the Netherlands are consistently at the top (note that, while the others are closely related Germanic languages, Finnish is essentially completely unrelated to English.)

  21. Phillip Helbig said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 11:20 pm

    "It certainly is not surprising that the native languages of the most proficient English speakers are mostly Germanic and thus, closely related to English."

    As I said above, I doubt that that is the reason. Rather, it is exposure. It might be the case that similarity increases the likelihood of exposure, but that isn't the main effect. The average Finn speaks English much better than the average German, primarily because of television.

  22. Phillip Helbig said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 11:42 pm

    The anomaly is South Africa. While it has 11 or whatever official languages, English is one of them, and it is the native language of a substantial fraction of the population.

    I've been to South Africa once, mostly Cape Town but took a trip to Sutherland. In Cape Town, but even more so in Sutherland, Afrikaans was as common or more common than English. I actually spoke to some people in Dutch and they spoke Afrikaans; they are mutually intelligible, especially if one has a basic idea of the differences. Afrikaans is often associated with Dutch settlers, English with English, and other languages with Black populations, but several people whom I heard speaking Afrikaans were what use to be called Coloured in South Africa (i.e. mixed-race). At Sutherland, I visited the observatory, where many or most of the staff were native Afrikaans speakers (but not Coloured).

  23. tsts said,

    March 5, 2020 @ 3:55 am

    I had to crack up a little when I saw Denmark as one of the top countries for English-speaking skills. Sure, their written English and comprehension skills are great, but speaking? I had a hard time understanding the announcements in English last time I passed through the Copenhagen airport. All grammatically perfect, but ….

    I share some of the concerns by others that the report overestimates English speaking skills in Eastern European countries. Another thing that is not clear – what was the age distribution of the people being tested? Especially in Eastern Europe, but also in the Mediterranean countries, you would find vast differences in English speaking abilities between young and old. Very few people above the age of 50 would know any English, but many people below 30 would. Overall, it still averages out to a fairly low level.

  24. Terry Hunt said,

    March 5, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    As something of a tangent to the main points of discussion (certainly of interest to me as a former Singapore resident), but nevertheless prompted by part of the OP, I was given slight pause by the sentence:

    "The country with the lowest English proficiency is Libya, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Ivory Coast, and Uzbekistan." [My italics]

    Since what is being described is, in context, the bottom of a list, my feeling is that preceded would be better. Is this just me (BrE speaker, FWIW), or are regional preferences involved? (I gather that Anna Papadopoulos is an Australian, so this is not a case of trying to knock someone's ESL skills.)

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 12:15 am

    As a fellow native speaker of <Br.E>, I too would have written "prededed" in this context. But I do wonder whether Anna Papadopoulos's first language is Australian English — the final two sentences of her biography (on the page to which this article is linked) read rather strangely :

    Anna Papadopoulos is an associate editor and oversees the global editorial division of CEOWORLD magazine, setting up the team structure and ensuring global alignment and cohesion in strategy. Working on a range of topics from fashion, higher education, travel, and lifestyle. Write at

    [my italics]

  26. Rodger C said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 1:38 am

    Philip, I think that phrase was produced by a native writer of Normal Inept English.

  27. Mark Plant said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    "Singapore has almost wiped out its mother tongues: Elderly speakers of Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien sometimes cannot talk to their own grandchildren",

    Since when were Chinese languages the "mother tongues" of the Malay peninsula?

    Immigrants always lose their mother tongues — the issue is solely how quickly. Two generations would be pretty standard, I would think.

    Are we really expecting immigrants to retain the ancestral tongue of three and four generations back? That'd be quite something for those with ancestors from several different regions.

  28. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    It certainly is not surprising that the native languages of the most proficient English speakers are mostly Germanic and thus, closely related to English.

    This is really easy to exaggerate. Not only is Finland a stark counterexample, but the similarities between English and, say, German are easily exaggerated. Sure, if you start from German, you won't have trouble with the size of the English vowel/diphthong inventory (half of the actual sound values are another story), with prefixed ("phrasal") verbs that give people who start from Romance so much trouble, with the irregular verbs (of which many are irregular in the exact same ways in German) or with the concept of articles; but the details of article usage are different, the adjective/adverb distinction (which basically all other languages in Europe have!) requires a long time and a lot of practice to grasp, and the tense/aspect system (when to use did, was doing or has done, when to use does, is doing or has been doing, and not to confuse has done with has been doing…) is just a slog that requires two years of intensive training before the results are largely reliable. Like the Finns, we get that in school – it's not a matter of natural aptitude, it's a matter of living in a rich country.

  29. Terry Hunt said,

    March 6, 2020 @ 6:46 pm

    @ Mark Plant
    While you would doubtless be correct in most instances, I think this does not apply to Singapore (which is a group of islands off the Malay peninsula rather than physically contiguous with it) because of its population history over the last two centuries.

    When the territory was obtained by Stamford Raffles in the 1820s, the Island had only around a thousand (Malay-speaking) inhabitants. Over the next 35 years rapid immigration increased the population to some 80,000 of which over half were Chinese: today about 3/4 of the 5-1/2 million or so inhabitants are of Chinese ethnicity and a further 1/10 of Indian origins.

    In such a scenario of overwhelming immigration, the immigrant communities could (and to my direct personal knowledge did) largely retain their languages of ethnic origin, and of course used English as their lingua franca. While they also variously acquired some knowledge of other ethnicities' tongues, I can assure you that the Chinese Singaporeans did not, by and large, replace their topolects of origin with Malay. Some did, however, shift to English as a first language, as was the case with the family of Lee Kuan Yew (whom my father knew as Harry Lee).

  30. A1987dM said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 1:36 am

    @ajay: In most of Ireland, Irish is taught the way you'd teach a dead language, and the vast majority of Irish people who've been out of school for more than a couple of years can hardly understand enough of it to understand a weather forecast, whatever they claim.

  31. Su-C said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 6:22 am

    I grew up in Singapore and left 50 years ago, so I cannot speak with any clarity to the situation today. However, as a member of a community of descendants from Fujian Province in China who emigrated in the mid 1700s or so, I can attest to the fact that Hokkien (Fujianese) was the common language spoken at home in families of Hokkien descent. Over the course of 200 years of living in an Overseas Chinese environment, naturally there was a large Malay and to some extent English adulteration of the vocabulary. (Similarly, there were Cantonese and Hakka speaking families). Malay was well understood, easily enough to get by, as well as English (or rather Singlish, despite English being one of the official languages of education, and the main official administrative language of government.) On the street or on the bus you could easily get by in Hokkien alone if you had to. And elderly grandmothers had to.

  32. Leo said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 8:26 am

    I can add my voice to those doubting the "similarity" of English and German. I took German A-Level at age 16-18, and the grammar (and to a lesser extent phonology) was no less than an assault course for the brain. I studied hard and came out the other end with a firm grounding in the German case system, but it wasn't easy and didn't come naturally. Had someone told me that German should be a piece of cake because it's "similar to English" (hooray! eins zwei drei sounds a bit like one two three! this is easy!), I'd have quickly corrected them. If the two languages are so wonderfully similar, why aren't native English speakers famous for their ease in picking up German?

    We're talking about ESL, and yes, there might be some asymmetries in grammatical complexity that make English easier to learn for German-speakers than vice-versa in certain respects. But "similar" is not an accurate one-word description of the two languages.

  33. 艾力(Eric) said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 10:08 am


    I would doubt those numbers today. They appear to come from the 1992 CIA World Factbook. Since then, there has been what seems to me a massive shift to Urdu. Urdu is the medium of instruction in schools, media, it is the prestige variety, with Punjabi characterized as “rough,” “rural,” etc. Despite the ethnic Punjabi majority in Pakistan, younger people tend to conduct public life in Urdu, especially educated urbanites.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 10:36 am

    Leo, I have never studied German, and what German I speak I have learned through osmosis. But one thing strikes me — when you were studying German at school, you were taught German grammar (their case system, etc). Were you ever taught English grammar to the same depth ?

  35. Leo said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 8:50 pm

    Philip, we certainly weren't taught English grammar in the same systematic way as German. English lessons, to the best of my memory, focused on comprehension and expression. If a particular grammatical point came up, I suppose it was dealt with then.

    For example, we were not explicitly taught that 'I' and 'me' refer to the same person but with different inflections (I suppose we don't call them cases in English). Of course, native English speakers know this implicitly, but knowing it explicitly might have helped with German cases by analogy.

    Mind you, I didn't do English A-Level, so I can't compare that with German.

  36. Leo said,

    March 7, 2020 @ 9:08 pm

    艾力(Eric)- thanks for the update about Urdu.

  37. Trogluddite said,

    March 8, 2020 @ 11:46 am

    @Philip Taylor: Indeed; that was something of which I was very aware while studying French at school. Much time was spent in each lesson learning the meaning of e.g. "infinitive", "genitive", "perfect tense" etc. as components of English grammar, as few, if any, of us had ever heard our native tongue described in those terms. I certainly don't recall such knowledge being required to get a good grade for the English Language 'O'-level.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    March 9, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    I think that I (and probably others of my generation) were very lucky in this respect, in that I attended a grammar school that actually taught grammar (both Latin and English, and if one took them, other languages as well). "Parsing a sentence" was a standard English exercise (although I am not sure in which form that started — probably the lower fourth rather than the third), and whilst I don't remember either my Latin or my English teacher comparing and contrasting the two languages, we immediately learned that at least some of the grammatical terms were common to both.

  39. Andrea Charles said,

    March 12, 2020 @ 1:41 am

    The conflicts regarding Singapore being a country without an official functional language is quite interesting. It is quite amusing to know that Malay is the national language and English is the defacto official of Singapore, whereas, Chinese and Tamil are equally competing to be the second most spoken language there. Well, I think all this can be contributed to the fact that Singapore is a country dominated by immigrants and the need to connect among themselves made English a necessity.

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