The official language of Singapore is English. It’s surprising how many people don’t know that. The signs and notices are English. Government forms are in English. Newspapers are in English.
Because there are so many cultures, most Singaporeans speak two languages—the tongue of their heritage and English. Because their English is heavily accented, I often ask the Singaporeans to speak slower and louder, explaining that I have difficulty hearing. I thought this was a clever and tactful solution to a touchy problem until I was discussing the issue with a woman at last month’s readers’ group (The book was Wives and Daughters. If ever you come across it, run! Save yourself!) and one of the other women said she did the same thing. So now we’ve got the Singaporeans thinking Americans have weak ears.
When I first moved here the English-speaking ex-pats jokingly referred to Singaporean English as “Singlish”—a little too openly, as it turned out, because what seems humorous or charming to one group seems condescending and mean-spirited to another. So these days, to say someone speaks Singlish is politically incorrect. Also, the term Singlish implies that the local language is a mixture of English and Singaporean, but there simply isn’t such a thing. And just because the accent is difficult to understand doesn’t mean the Singaporeans are speaking any language other than English. The Singaporeans are well-educated with as sizeable a vocabulary and as sharp a grasp of grammar as people from any other English-speaking country. I can be standing right next to two people who are talking to one another—and I’ll wonder, what language are they speaking? And then a word will fly past—toaster, car, shops—and I’ll realize they’re speaking English.
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of other languages around. The imported workers are from Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan—oh, and so many others. And these people speak whatever language they’ve brought with them; plus, in order to come here, they’re required to speak English. Today I was walking up the hill from Orchard Road (David calls this the Hill of Death. He’s made up a merry song about it.) when I passed two people who were speaking to one another in their own language. As soon as they noticed my approach, they switched to English. This has happened too many times for it to be a coincidence. Often when I’m on the bus or in the checkout line at the grocery store, people will change from their language to mine without so much as a break in their flow of words. This is a thoughtful gesture which allows me to listen in on the conversations of strangers, and I appreciate it.