The spread of English language in Singapore and the birth of Singlish phenomenon

English in Singapore, Singlish in Singapore, English, Singlish, Singapore

Why English language is so widespread on global scale?

To the vitality and prosperity of whatever language contribute intellectuals with their ideas, ambassadors and state officers with their diplomatic skills, but above all the armies with their military power and the strategic skills of their generals.

In this juncture, the establishment of British East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I opera della regina Elisabetta I, is to be considered an essential cornerstone of the spread and dominance of English Language on a global scale. Not least, with reference to the maintenance of such status proved to be the extraordinary contribution of the United States of America, especially in the years after World War II1.

If success acheved by General Robert Clive in the historic battle of Plassey is the cornerstone of British domination in Asia, the foresight and committment of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles constitute two elements of undeniable importance, especially for what concerns the unexpected arrival of English Language on the strategic island of Singapore.  A lasting confirmation of the undissoluble relationship whereby the area of expansion and influence of a given language increases in direct proportion to the military power of its speakers2, note how the unespected Japanese occupation of Singapore caused a clear and immediate decline of English Language in the whole Singaporean territory, phenomenon that lasted until the next British reconquest and the Japanese surrender.

Why does English Language in Singapore evolved and changed giving birth to that extraordinary sociolinguistic phenomenon called Singlish?

For what concerns the birth and development of Singlish, it should be recognized that, although the origins of this linguistic reality are traced back to the late Seventies of last century3, in conjunction with a second generation of English Language speakers born after the expulsion of Singapore from Federation Malaysia,  the roots of Singapore Colloqual English find their lifeblood in the heart of colonial period, more precisely since the opening of Suez Canal, key event that marked the rise of Singapore as the crossroad par excellence of Asian trades and, at the same time, trigger factor of the first economic boom in Singapore, which became the favourite destination of merchants, speculators and immigrants coming from all over Central and South-east Asia.

It was just during this period that the colouful linguistic and cultural Singaporean environment took shape, in particular thanks to the different populations that in those years arrived in Singapore, which, together with their cultures and traditions, carried in “Lion City” also their their respective languages and dialects.

Obviously, within a cultural and linguistic “ecosystem” where coexist more than 20 different languages and dialects, linguistic interferences are inevitable.

For what concerns the the contribution of all these languages and dialects coexisting in Singapore on the quantity of lexical borrowings detected in Singapore Colloquial English, we can observe a certain, but not absolute, proportionality between the demographic rate of their speakers and the quantity of lexical borrowings that these languages and dialects have progressively converged into Singlish.

Which languages have mainly influenced the pronunciation, sintax and morphology of Singapore Colloquial English?

From the analysis of phonetic phenomena inherent Singapore Colloquial English emerges that the typical pronunciation of Singlish appears to be predominantly, if not totally, influenced by those languages and dialects belonging to the branch of Sinitic Languages, while, with reference to the morphology and syntax of Singlish (Singapore Colloquial English), as well as being strongly influenced by adstrate languages active in the area, them both still show clear traces of the influence of substrate languages.


In order to make an accurate assessment of the current “health status” of Singapore Colloquial, wi might take into consideration the countless infiltrations of Singlish into different contexts of Singaporean cultural production, from cinema to theatre, from comics to music, to marketing and advertising sphere.

NDespite all fierce government campaigns aimed to curb the use and spread of Singlish among local population, Singapore Colloquial English, in addition to being considered a vital and extremely functional glue for the integration of all different ethnic groups living in Singapore, it is also seen as a radiant “icon” in which today reflect all linguistic and cultural traditions belonging to the various populations that over the centuries have crowned the island of Singapore “the home of linguistic interferences par excellence”.


Further readings and recommended books:

1Graddol David, The Future of English? A guide to forecasting the popularity of the English Language in the 21st century, The British Council, London, 1997, 2000, United Kingdom, op. cit.

2Crystal David, English as a global language, second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, 2003, United Kingdom, op. cit.

3Low Ee Ling and Brown Adam cit. in. Schneider Edgar Werner, Postcolonial English: Varieties Around the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, United Kingdom, op. cit.

Dr. Biagio Faraci, traduttore tecnico, interprete di trattativa ed international web business consultant

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Dr. Biagio Faraci

Technical translator, consecutive business interpreter, personal web - teacher of English, German and Italian for foreigners, expert in sociolinguistics, internationalization of business communication, strategic localization of business communication, intercultural mediation and corporate language training, I help individuals, professionals and companies to internationalize and / or efficiently localize their communication in the world of Web 2.0, establish a strong presence and find new customers in foreign markets through customized strategies.
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