Learning the Language

How to communicate in Singapore

Learning the Language


There are many ways to learn any of the official languages of Singapore once you arrive. All of the languages are taught in schools, so it is possible to enroll in classes to learn Malay, English, Mandarin or Tamil.

There are also many private tutors available, which is a more personalized option preferred by many people. However, if you know either Malay or English you will be able to communicate with everyone. Many signs and public documents are printed in all four languages. Singlish, the name referring to the dialect of English spoken in Singapore, is not taught in schools. It must be picked up by talking to locals and getting used to the style of speaking. Besides the accent, the main differences between Singlish and English are local phrases and rewording of common commands. In Singlish, speakers tend to end sentences with a distinct exclamation, the most common being ah, lah, ley.

Here are some common Singlish phrases to practice before your arrival.

  • Cheem: Difficult to understand.
  • Huh: I beg your pardon
  • Lah, lor, meh: For punctuating sentences. (Don't be like that lah. I am like that lor. Cannot meh)
  • Tumpang: ask for a favor
  • Oso: I oso like dis one (I also like this one)


Malay is a difficult language to learn, even if you have a background in or can speak other Asian languages. It used to be the most common language in Singapore and was used by people of different races nationalities to communicate with one another. English is now more widely spoken and so is the de facto language used in Singapore. Military, police and civil parade commands are still only given in Malay. Malay is written using the Latin alphabet called Rumi. Here are some common phrases to practice before your arrival.

  • Selamat datang: Welcome
  • Selamat tinggal: Goodbye
  • Terima kasih: Thank you
  • Saya tidak tahu: I do not know
  • (Minta) tolong: Please help (me)
  • Tiada: Nothing


Mandarin is also a difficult language to learn, but is useful for anyone living in Singapore, as it is the second most spoken language, but this is in no ways a requirement for living in Singapore. There is also the secondary benefit of being better placed to speak with rest of the World's Mandarin speakers. The Mandarin writing system is a set of symbols of more than 40,000 characters and definitions. Here are some basic phrases in Mandarin, and their pronunciations in parenthesis.

  • 是 (shi): Yes
  • 谢谢。(xie xie): Thank you
  • 你饿吗?(ni er ma): Are you hungry?
  • 晚安。(wan an): Good night


Tamil is the fourth official language of Singapore. It is important to remember that Tamil has many different dialects depending on the region in which it is spoken. For example, certain words and phrases used in Singapore would not be recognized by Tamil speakers in India. It is written using a script called the vaṭṭeḻuttu,which contains 12 vowels, 18 consonants, and one special character called the āytam. The script combines these characters to form 216 compound characters, totalling 247 characters in the entire language. In general, it is not necessary to learn Tamil when living in Singapore. However, here are some phrases to learn if you have an interest in the language (note the Tamil words are represented phonetically in an English-like pronunciation).

  • Hello- Vanakkam
  • How are you?- eppadi irukeenga?
  • Please- thayavu seithu
  • Thank you- nandri

Further reading

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