Languages in Singapore

Singapore may be a small island nation but it has several official languages. The most commonly spoken languages are English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin. The national language spoken by the majority of native Singaporeans is Malay with the country’s national anthem sang in the language.

British Expats living in Singapore shouldn’t have too much difficulty in communicating as most people speak English. Be warned however that the language can be a bit confusing as the natives have adapted it to their use. English is the language used in business and the education system meaning that expat children should settle in relatively easy.

The Singaporean’s localized version of English is famously known as Singlish or Singaporean English, which is quite difficult for foreigners to understand. Singapore is a multilingual society, which is why Singlish developed over time. Singlish phrases are most common in the informal aspects of the English language, such as casual conversation. In school, every student learns English and a second language of their choice. Mandarin is the second most popular language, with over 70% of the population speaking it as a first or second language.

Singlish phrases and their meanings

It may not be classed as an official language but some knowledge of Singlish is essential when living and travelling around Singapore. The language is unique in that it mixes old English brought to the island by the first British settlers, modern English and a unique blend of Malay, Chinese, Tamil and other local dialects.

Here are some of the phrases that you are most likely to encounter whilst in the country.

Don’t pray pray ah!: ‘Don’t mess around!”

Oh,izzit? : ‘That’s interesting’ or ‘Oh is that true’

Dohwan: ‘No, thanks’ or ‘I don’t want it.’

Kiasu: This is a general term used by Singaporeans to describe the highly competitive nature of most Singaporeans.

So how?: ‘So what do we do now?’

Alamak!: An expression of dismay

Can can!: ‘Yes, definitely’

Auntie/Uncle: A respectful form of address to an elder.

Lai dat also can?: ‘ Is that acceptable?’