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Speaking the LanguageBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
Singapore - Speaking the Language
Today, Singapore has four officially recognised languages which are widely spoken across the city state: English, Mandarin, Bahasa Malay (Malay), and Tamil. The national language is Malay, and the National Anthem ‘Majula Singapura’ is sung in Malay. Most native residents are able to speak two or more languages.
Singapore became an independent city state on 9 August 1965. English was seen as the international business language, and was therefore promoted within the education system and workplace. English is taught from primary school and used throughout the education system, is the language most commonly spoken at home, dominates many workplaces including government departments and the courts, and is the most common language used in Singapore’s published literature. Most signs are in English so even if you only speak English you will find your way around. Today about 32% of the native population speak English, although the ability to speak English is not a requirement for becoming an official citizen of Singapore.
Spelling for written English in Singapore follows the English conventions, rather than those used in the United States and elsewhere. Most services are available online, both for public administration and commerce, and English is one of the options always present. Institutions in Singapore that interact with the population as a whole operate systems which take account of the diversity of the population. Important government documents sent to households will have multilingual instructions on the back, with telephone numbers for support in each of the four official languages. Anyone wishing to query a utility bill can ring the telephone number and be put through to an operator who speaks the official language of their choice.
A lot of TV programmes and movies from the United States are shown on television and in the cinemas, so English speakers in Singapore, especially the young, are used to the sound and colloquialisms of American English rather than British English. TV is broadcast in all four official languages, via the public broadcaster MediaCorp TV, or local pay-to-view TV operators such as StarHub TV and Singtel TV. Subtitles are widely available in a selection of official languages. Whilst private ownership of satellite dishes is banned, in many parts of Singapore residents are able to access TV stations in Malaysia and Indonesia. On demand TV is also accessed from global TV company websites.
A local dialect, known as Singlish, is commonly spoken by the English speaking natives of Singapore. Singlish is used in casual conversation, and newcomers may find it difficult to understand at first. It is based on British English, has a lot of influence from the United States, and has developed into a unique dialect usually spoken at a faster speed than expats are used to. The media development agency does not allow Singlish to be used on TV or in radio advertising. The Speak Good English movement was formed in 2000, encouraging residents in Singapore to speak grammatically correct English which is universally understood, rather than Singlish.
Native English speakers in Singapore find ‘ang mohs’ (essentially, the Caucasians) sometimes difficult to understand, especially those who have a regional accent. In these situations it is important to slow down, use fewer words, separate your words and use simpler sentences. This becomes especially important for anyone who holds a well respected role, such as a doctor or dentist; the conservative nature of the population means that elderly people in particular may be embarrassed to speak poor English to someone they see as their superior, or may be reluctant to reveal that they did not understand what was said.
Education in Singapore was very limited prior to independence, so many elderly native people of Chinese descent do not speak English, and indeed received very little schooling at all. As members of the Chinese community have lived together in the same streets throughout their lives, and inhabited the same work environments, they would have had little exposure to English. Many of the Chinese residents in Singapore are immigrants from China, who have not had the compulsory language lessons enjoyed by the younger educated Singapore natives. Therefore expats cannot expect everyone they meet to speak English.
A number of Chinese dialects were once widely used in Singapore. In 1979, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched a government initiative called the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC). The purpose was to encourage the Chinese population to communicate more efficiently in one common language, that of standard Mandarin, and help unify the Chinese community in Singapore. The SMC became an annual event, and has changed over time to reflect changes in society. For example, in the 1990s there was a general awareness that many of the educated Chinese in Singapore spoke English and had lost their Chinese language skills, so the campaign encouraged the educated Chinese communities to speak more Mandarin; as China became a global commercial giant the campaign encouraged the use of Mandarin as a business language. More recently the SMC focused on cultural identity and encouraging people to remember their roots in Singapore, responding to concerns that children who had been educated in at least two languages at school could no longer converse with their grandparents in the family’s traditional dialect.
Because the government has heavily promoted the teaching of at least two languages to all school children for many years, the heritage of Singapore’s native population, and the continuing levels of immigration from China, 70% of Singapore’s population today speak Mandarin as their first or second language.
Since some employers in Singapore require their employees to speak both English and Mandarin, you may find it useful to take language classes. There are many available, for different lengths of study and varying costs. You may qualify for a subsidy from the Workforce Development Agency if you are a Permanent Resident (PR).
A small selection of courses available include:
The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry
47 Hill Street #09-00, Singapore 179365
Tel: +65 6337 8381 Fax: +65 6339 0605
51 Cuppage Road #10-12, Singapore 229469
Tel: +65 6737 6666
7A Trengganu Street, Singapore 058461
Tel: +65 6589 8674
Despite the diversity of the population and languages spoken, it is useful to be aware of cultural generalisations of race that exist in the country. The Malay are seen as laid back; the Indians as noisy; the immigrant Chinese as selfish and lacking gentility; and the ‘ang mohs’ (Caucasians) as one highly visible homogenous group of loud yanks. People know that these are cultural generalisations which many individuals do not fall into, but it is useful to be aware of these prejudices if you are living and working there.
Although English is widely spoken, the demand for teachers of English, especially for classes of schoolchildren, outstrips supply. It is more competitive to gain a TEFL or teaching role in Singapore than in many other countries. If you want to be a serious contender for employment, you will need to have more experience than usual, and higher level qualifications, such as a degree in English, Linguistics or Teaching, as well as a TEFL certification. Your employer should initiate your Employment Pass application, the Ministry of Education must approve all teachers who are to work in their schools, and receiving police clearance in your home country is also part of this application process.
Depending on the job you are offered and your own qualifications and experience, you may possibly earn about S$3,500 to S$4,500 per month, including a housing stipend, which is high in comparison to nearby countries, and your pay and conditions may be better than some local teachers receive. The tax rate is low, about 2%, but you are responsible for your own taxes and must pay them promptly when you receive your tax bill.
You will encounter cultural differences with the children and, more importantly, their parents. You will need to be respectful to them, and try to accommodate any requests they make.
A good place to start your search for employment as an English teacher in Singapore is with an agency, as you must secure employment and a work visa before entering the country for work. Some of the agencies who may welcome applications include:
Reach To Teach
1606 80th Avenue, Algona, Iowa, 50511, USA
US & Canada: +1 (201)-467-4612
United Kingdom: +44 (0203)-286-9794
Australia: +61 (2)-8011-4516
2040 Bancroft Way, Suite 200, Berkeley, CA 94704
+1 (415) 796-6456
Toronto Office - North American and Canadian based Teachers
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
UK Office - UK, Ireland, European and Middle East based Teachers: email@example.com
South African Office - Africa and South Africa based teachers: firstname.lastname@example.org
Australian Office - Asia, Far East and Australian based teachers: email@example.com
New Zealand Office - New Zealand based teachers: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more about this country
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