Chinese Language in Singapore
Guest post on Chinese Language in Singapore provided by Guus Goorts from Yago Languages.
For a language spoken by so many people, Mandarin is an official language in surprisingly few countries. Outside of the Greater China region (China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan), I can really think only of one country, the one I’m living in: Singapore. So, suppose you spent a couple of months learning Mandarin in Beijing or Shanghai; would you be able to use it in Singapore? Would it be an advantage? In this post, I’ll try to give you an idea of how Mandarin is being used in Singapore.
Do all Singaporeans speak Mandarin?
I was once in a police station to update my residential address. As the young Singaporean Indian officer was helping me to get that done, an older Chinese man entered the police station and addressed the police officer in Mandarin. The officer’s response was: “I don’t speak Mandarin. Malay can?”. And they proceeded in Malay.
About 74% of Singapore’s population is Chinese. The rest are ethnic Malay (13%) or Indian (9%). Within their ethnic group, Indians generally speak Tamil; Malays speak Malay. English is the most important lingua franca among the different ethnic groups and is the language used in school, by the government and in business.
Besides English, “Singlish” plays an important role. It combines the vocabularies and grammar patterns of different Chinese dialects, English, Malay and Tamil. The so-spoken Singlish is a fascinating language. When Chinese sentence patterns are combined with English words, you get results like this:
– “Want or not?” –Meaning “Do you want this?” from “要不要？”/ “yāo bù yào?”
– “Can”– Meaning “ok”, “yes”, or “alright” from the Chinese “可以”/ “kěyǐ”
Not even all Chinese in Singapore speak Mandarin. Many of the older generation speak dialects, but have not learned Mandarin in school. Since 1966, though, every ethnic Chinese student has to pass Mandarin as a mandatory subject. So if you meet a Chinese Singaporean below the age of about 50, you can expect him or her to speak both English and Mandarin.
Is Mandarin in Singapore the same as in China?
There is a distinct difference in pronunciation and word usage, which you can liken to Dutch vs. Flemish, British vs. American English, and so on.
I learned Mandarin in Singapore from Chinese and Taiwanese teachers. Which means that my vocabulary and pronunciation is very ‘mainland style’. That’s funny, because the Mandarin you actually hear here on the streets is very different. Here are a few examples.
Mandarin language: 中文(zhōngwén ) vs. 华语(huáyǔ )
In Chinese class, I’ve learned to use 中文(China’s language), but on the streets you’ll always hear 华语(language of the [ethnic] Chinese). It’s a subtle but important difference. Singaporean Chinese feel Chinese in a cultural sense, but Singapore is their country, not China.
Market: 市场(shìchǎng ) vs. 把沙(bǎshā )
For the word “market”, Chinese Singaporeans use “basha”, which sounds a lot like the Malay word for market: “pasar”.
Bus: 公共汽车(gonggong qiche) vs. 巴士(bāshì)
巴士(bāshì) coming from the English “bus”.
Besides the different words in their vocab, I would say that Singaporeans’ vocab isn’t as deep as that of mainland Chinese’s (or PRC’s, as they’re called here: people from the People’s Republic of China). If I hear a Singaporean speak Mandarin, I can follow them word by word. If the topic becomes too complicated, Singaporeans typically will say the difficult words in English. For PRC’s, whether I can follow the conversation depends very much on the topic!
What’s the writing style? Traditional or simplified?
Unlike Taiwan and Hong Kong, Singapore has been using simplified Chinese characters for a long time and it’s pretty much the only thing you’d meet.
Is Mandarin a ‘must-have’ skill to succeed in Singapore?
Bluntly put, no. As you’ve just read, not even all born and bred Singaporeans speak Mandarin. But if you do speak Mandarin, it will definitely make you feel at home more quickly. I always enjoyed going to lunch with my Singaporean colleagues and hearing them banter in a combination of Mandarin, English and Singlish. It was great for them not to feel obliged to speak English when I was at the table. They would have done that, but it would feel a little awkward, and I wouldn’t have been able to feel as much part of the group as now.
Mandarin, besides English, can probably be considered Singapore’s second language. While there are some differences, mainland Chinese can get around and feel at home just fine in Singapore, and Singaporeans have little issues with their Mandarin in China. Don’t learn Mandarin to “do business in Singapore”, but if your intention is to get closer to people, then being able to speak Mandarin works wonders at breaking the ice.
Guus Goorts, originally from the Netherlands, has lived in Singapore since 2006. He is a student of Mandarin and founder of Yago Languages, an online guide to language schools in Singapore. Guus normally blogs at http://yago.sg/blog.