In defence of Singlish

An anti-Singlish editorial in the Straits Time (May 2, 2000) was yet another attack by a Singapore opinion leader, but the issue needs a less reactionary approach. Firstly, like nearly all official campaigns against language issues, there will be little to show for the money spent.

In defence of Singlish

An anti-Singlish editorial in the Straits Time (May 2, 2000) was yet another attack by a Singapore opinion leader, but the issue needs a less reactionary approach. Firstly, like nearly all official campaigns against language issues, there will be little to show for the money spent. Language change is driven by forces nearly always well beyond the control of governments and newspaper editors. Even Stalin failed, and governments more sensitive to public opinion risk looking foolish. Secondly, the concerns that Singlish is a danger to the international competitiveness of Singapore are wrong. Many English speakers around the world speak non-standard dialects of English as their main language, yet they are still fluent in standard English. In fact, leading researchers say that less than 15% of native-born Britons speak standard English as their everyday dialect1 See the papers linked below.

Speaking different dialects in different situations is called "diglossia", and happens everywhere there are dialects of different prestige. In Singapore, Singlish is the low prestige dialect, and standard English is the high prestige dialect.

Actually, there is no one "Singlish". At its most extreme, it has relatively few speakers, just as standard English is Singapore hardly ever is exactly the same as the English of the Home Counties. However, it is clear the most Singaporeans who can speak Standard English also use a different form of English that we call Singlish, and which of these two forms they use is easily predictable depending on the social situation. Using two dialects for different social purposes is called "Diglossia", and it has been widely researched, in Singapore and in many other places. The research goes back decades. It can be difficult to find a good way of explaining to standard English speakers how people can easily move between different dialects because the variation in English dialects around the world is usually not very great2 "Grammatical differences between Standard English and other dialects are in fact rather few in number, although of course they are very significant socially" Trudgill . Most people think of "Cockney" as being a separate dialect, although most of the characteristics of "Cockney" that make it a "dialect" are pronunciation based, not grammar based. However, "Cockney" can still illustrate the key points. First, we need a definition of fluency in standard English using a few tests, and then we ask if "Cockney" speakers can pass these tests. My tests are

  • Cockneys can sustain a ten minute, two-way conversation with a member of the British royal family (or Hugh Grant, or a job interview with a bank manager from Brighton. These are conversations very likely to be in standard English.)

  • They can comprehend a daily newspaper, and they can understand a London BBC news broadcast and the Queen's annual address (to linguists, witten-word tests are not as important, but I include them to show how difficult it is to imagine residents of London not having good standard English skills).

My claim is not that an East Londoner (or Geoffrey Boycott or a Norfolk speaker (this is a recording) for that matter) can sound like a member of the royal family, but by passing these tests they demonstrate fluency in standard English. At the same time, they are able to speak perfectly acceptable "Cockney" to other members of that social group. The United States and England are full of people who can move between standard English and local versions of English. This is just as well, because one leading researcher, Trudgill, estimates that only between 9% and 15% of Britons actually speak standard English as their main dialect, and that only 3% speak it with the "official" accent. While researching this article I came across an old Straits Times article, where a Singaporean mother complained that her daughter was speaking perfect standard English until she went to playgroup, where she learned Singlish from her peers. In fact the daughter was smarter than the mother; how could she have been accepted by the group if she kept speaking prestigious standard English in the informal surrounds of the playground? Rejecting the language of her peers would mean rejection by them. Children in Singapore must learn the language of their peers. It is the same the world over.

Another example close to Singapore is Jakarta. Anyone with basic Indonesian knows how different the native dialect of Jakartans is from Bahasa Indonesia, even though Bahasa Jakarta is still the same language3 Jakarta is the only place in Java where Bahasa Indonesia is spoken as a mother tongue.. Jakartans need standard Indonesian to talk with Indonesians from outside Jakarta, and for formal situations, even when everyone present is from Jakarta. You might think that native Jakartans get confused between the two dialects and can't speak good standard Bahasa Indonesia, yet after three years of living there, I can report that every single native-born4 Migrants from rural areas of Java are native speakers of Javanse, a completely unrelated language, and sometimes struggle with Bahasa Indonesia Jakartan I met speaks fine standard Indonesian, be they professionals, taxi drivers, maids, gardeners, drivers, security guards or whatever. I don't think too much of relying on personal anecdotes, but all the native Jakartans I've asked report the same thing. In other words, native born Jakartans speak two quite different dialects of Indonesian with ease. This would not be a surprise to people familiar with research in this area. Singaporeans easily perform the same thing.

English speakers raised in Singapore learn early in their life how to use different dialects for different situations, just as people do in all the other places on the planet with different dialects for different social needs. Many languages have different dialects for different social situations, and both Singlish and Bahasa Jakarta (known as 'slang' by its speakers) are used mainly in informal circumstances between social peers even when both speakers know the standard form of the language. The important conclusion is that usage of Singlish does not mean that Singapore speakers will be impaired in using standard English.

My reference to "Cockney" above may give the impression that Singlish is restricted to usage in Singapore by less educated people, since Cockneys are famously lower class residents of a poor part of London. In fact, as research by Gupta (see also links below) and others show, Singlish usage is widespread through all classes in Singapore, including "bank managers, doctors and teachers"5 private correspondence, groups who have excellent command of standard English. In Jakarta, Bahasa Jakarta ("slang") is also used by all classes.

Despite the negative pressure from the authorities, most Singaporeans are quietly proud of Singlish, and why not? It is a fun, energetic and dynamic dialect. If Singaporeans wish for a separate cultural identity, Singlish is likely to grow in popularity, no matter what the government does. Not so long ago the editorial pages of the Straits Times were dismayed by surveys showing that some young Singaporeans really wanted to be Westerners. Singlish is strong evidence that most young Singaporeans are actually moving in the opposite direction; they want "Singaporean" to mean more than living in an air-conditioned dot on the map (Mahatir's phrase).

As for the concern about international English, who could seriously deny that these same young Singaporeans are first class speakers of standard English? No country in Asia has better English skills; among its service economy rivals, only Australia offers serious competition in overall language skills. But is there a decline in English here? No. Spending some time among both older and younger Singaporeans reveals that English in Singapore is getting better with successive generations, even as Singlish seems to spread further and further into the mass media.

English recently became the first language in 2000 years to have more second-language speakers than native speakers. By using different dialects of English for both international communication and for local use, Singapore is not joining a world wide corruption. It is leading a world wide trend; globalisation means that people are becoming more protective of their identities even as they spend more time in contact with the rest of the world. This will drive language change everywhere, but it will not threaten the requirement for standard English anywhere.

Clearly, Singapore's language education is working well. In an island speaking so many languages, there is very good and improving command of standard English. It's odd to think that Singlish is a threat to this, because evidence from all over the world says it's not.

Relax, lah. Singlish is cool, it's homegrown and it's no problem.

Tim Richardson, Singapore.
Draft written in May 2000. Modified Sept 2000 and March 2001.

I am not a linguist nor involved in language education, language policy or anything connected to the "language industry". My views are influenced by my undergraduate studies in Linguistics, and by my own interests, observations and enjoyment of language.

I hope readers find the links below stimulating.

Further reading and links

Linguistic notes

This phenomenon of using one dialect in informal circumstances and another dialect when formality is required is widely observed all over the world. Since dialects of English in England are actually weak compared with the difference between Singlish and standard English (the English used by East Londoners may no longer really be a dialect at all in formal terms), it is more realistic to compare the Singapore situation with Egyptian Arabic, for instance, which is well researched, or with different dialects of Javanese, or the use of German in Switzerland. There is a mountain of research into "high" and "low" dialect usage all around the world, and most linguists conclude that it is easy for humans to manage this as part of the language acquisition process. Dialect swapping and mixing of entirely different languages is known as diglossia and code-switching. Linguists working in this area are often referred to as Sociolinguists, who specialise in studying the way our societies and languages influence each other. Dialect research is a very important area for language policy and education issues in the US, Singapore and elsewhere non-standard languages and dialects are spoken side-by-side with prestige dialects. Sociolinguistics is a fascinating and provoking field because the research often confronts people with factual findings that are contrary to vested interests and emotional investments. As in other areas subject to rational enquiry, keep an open mind and be prepared to be wrong.

Here are some good places to go for more information.

1) Search for "dialects diglossia" and "dialects code switching"

2) Websites

  • Singapore English : notes by linguist Dr Anthea Gupta (Highly Recommended)

  • Language Varieties Network : This site is about varieties of language that differ from the standard variety that is normally used in the media and taught in the schools.

  • Three papers about Standard English, including one by Trudgill and another regarding teaching of English
    The Trudgill paper is highly recommended for those who seek a definition of Standard English.
    The paper by Hogg asks "will Standard English survive?".

  • A free introductory Linguistics book including a quick description of diglossia with some examples. It comes from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a group who have built up a strong array of practical linguistic techniques in order to assist them in translating Christian religious texts (you will note in this 138 page document some Biblical quotes used to flavor the document). You might not agree with their goals, but they are widely respected for their skills and materials.

3) Recommended texts and articles

  • Fasold, Ralph, The Sociolinguistics of Society (Introduction to Sociolinguistics Vol 1) (Barnes and Noble has this on its website, probably impossible to find in Singapore at the moment).


  • The Oxford Companion to the English Language (concise edition). Outstanding book for anyone interested in English. Easy to find in Singapore.


  • A bibliography of linguistic articles about diglossia and language acquisition in Singapore. Some of these are easy for members of the public to find in Singapore libraries, and some aren't.