Singapore has four national languages – English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin. While “English” is the most widely spoken language, it is initially a very difficult transition for most foreigners. Singaporeans call their dialect of English “Singlish” or colloquial Singaporean English, as it is a mixture of all four national languages and other dialects around. By the end of my exchange program, I was speaking Singlish like it was a foreign language. At first, my friends and I would speak in Singlish terms to show how well we knew Singapore, but it quickly morphed into us unknowingly adding the phrases into our sentences.
There is a lack of officially printed Singlish dictionaries or pamphlets. Since Singlish is commonly regarded as having low prestige, the government and some Singaporeans highly discourage using Singlish. The government has created the “Speak Good English Movement” to emphasize the importance of speaking traditional English. Still, as it becomes more accepted as a cornerstone of Singapore’s culture, Singaporeans use Singlish in casual conversations with friends and family.
Singlish is colorful, expressive, and demonstrates the history and multiculturalism of Singapore. Singapore was established as a British colony in 1824, and remained so until 1942 when it was occupied by the Japanese Empire during World War II. When the war ended, Singapore reverted to British control, but quickly merged with Malaysia from 1963-1965. Singapore became an independent republic in 1965. Given Singapore’s rich history of cultural blends, Singlish is a language that brings diverse ethnicities together.
My favorite Singlish phrases are below:
This is easily my favorite Singlish phrase. It’s added to the end of sentences as an exclamation, or to add emphasis to a sentence. It can be used in questions, exclamations, or statement sentences. Examples of sentences lah can be used in are, “The weather is so nice today lah!”, “Will you pass the pepper lah?”, and my personal favorite, “Ok, lah!” By the end of my time in Singapore, I would answer almost every question with an, “Ok, lah!”
Singapore’s education system has a reputation for being highly competitive and overly focused on grades. Bred out of this competition is a highly individualistic culture. This individualism continues to manifest in many of the company cultures around Singapore. Kiasu is a word that is essentially the fear of losing out to other people. It is getting a child ahead so they won’t be behind their peers, overly prepping for group presentations, or being competitive to the point of doing anything to win. One example of a sentence using kiasu would be, “She is so kiasu that she bought her school books early so she could study over summer.”
- Can can
Typically, people in the U.S. use affirmative words like “sure” or “sounds good”, but Singaporeans largely use one word as an affirmation more than any other word – can. It can also be asked as a question, as in “Can I?” Asking for favors usually ends in a, “Can can!” Working on a group project, people would answer questions with a simple, “can.”