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ISCApad #194

Monday, August 04, 2014 by Chris Wellekens

3-1-9 (2014-01) INTERSPEECH 2014 Newsletter January 2014


English in Singapore




Attending INTERSPEECH 2014 in Singapore you will probably be glad to know that English is spoken in any corner of the island. Indeed, it is one of the four national languages and the second language spoken in Singapore's homes. According to the last census, in 2010, 89% of the population is literate in English, making of Singapore a very convenient place for tourism, shopping, research or to hold a conference.






Historical context of English in Singapore




The history of Singapore started as the first settlements were established in the 13th century AD [2]. Along the years, Singapore was part of different kingdoms and sultanas until the 19th century, when modern Singapore was founded under the impulsion of the British Empire. In 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore and established a treaty with the local rulers to develop a new trading station. From this date, the importance of Singapore continuously grew under the influence of Sir Raffles who, despite not being very present on the island, was the real builder of modern Singapore. Singapore remained under British administration until the Second World War and became a Crown Colony after the end of the conflict. Followed a brief period during which Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaya before becoming independent in 1965 and part of the Commonwealth of Nations.


From this history, Singapore conserved English as one of its four official languages as well as many landmarks that deserve a visit beside of INTERSPEECH. Amongst them, Singapore Botanic Garden, founded in 1859, is internationally renowned [3]. This urban garden of 74 hectares was laid there by Sir Raffles to cultivate and preserve local plants in the tradition of the tropical colonial gardens. Including a Rain Forest, several lakes, an orchid garden and a performance stage, Singapore Botanic Garden is a very popular place to enjoy free concerts on week end afternoons.


Other green spot in the “City in a Garden”, the Padang (field in Malay) was created by Sir Raffles, always him, who planned to reserve the space for public purposes. The place is now famous for the two cricket clubs founded in 1870 and 1883 at both ends of the field and the games that can be watched on weekends.


Amongst the numerous landmarks inherited from the British colonization, the most famous include St Andrew's Anglican cathedral, the Victoria Theater, the Fullerton building, Singapore's City Hall, Old Parliament house, the Central Fire Station and many black and white bungalows built from the 19th century for the rich expatriate families. Some of those bungalows, now transformed in restaurant, will offer you a peaceful atmosphere to enjoy a local diner.






The role of English in Singapore




English has a special place in Singapore as it is the only national language which is not a “mother-tongue”. Indeed, Alsagoff [6] framed English as “cultureless” in that it is “disassociated from Western culture” in the Singaporean context. This cultural voiding makes English an ethnically neutral language used as lingua franca between ethnic groups [5] after replacing the local Malay in this role [4]. Interestingly, English is the only compulsory language of education, and its status in school is that of First Language, as opposed to the Second Language status delegated to the other official languages. By promoting the use of English as working language, the will of the government is to not advantage or disadvantage any ethnic group.


Nevertheless, the theoretical equality stated in the constitution between the four national languages is not always present in practice. For instance, English is overwhelming parliamentary business and some governmental websites are only available in English. Additionally, all legislation is in English only [4].






Singapore English




The standard Singapore English is almost similar to the British English although very cosmopolitan, with 42% of the population born outside the country. Nevertheless, a new standard of pronunciation has been emerging recently [1]. Interestingly, this pronunciation is independent of any external standard and some aspects of it cannot be predicted by reference to British English or any other variety of external English.


The other form of English that you will hear in Singapore is known as Singlish. It is a colorful Creole including words from the many languages spoken in Singapore such as various Chinese dialects (Hokkien, TeoChew, and Cantonese), Malay or Tamil. Many things might be said about Singlish and another newsletter will be especially dedicated to this local variant. Don't miss it!






[1] Deterding, David (2003). 'Emergent patterns in the vowels of Singapore English' National Institute of Education, Singapore. Retrieved 7 June 2013.


(on line January 7
th, 2014)


[3] , (on line January 7th, 2014)


[4] Leimgruber, J. R. (2013). The management of multilingualism in a city-state: Language policy in Singapore. In I. G. Peter Siemund, Multilingualism and Language Contact in Urban Areas: Acquisition development, teaching, communication (pp. 229-258). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.


[5] Harada, Shinichi. 'The Roles of Singapore Standard English and Singlish.' 情報研究 40 (2009): 69-81.


[6] Alsagoff, L. (2007). Singlish: Negotiating culture, capital and identity. In Language, Capital, Culture: Critical studies of language and education in Singapore (pp. 25-46). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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