English on the Rise in Singapore

It’s no secret that English is the most widely spoken language on the planet—with a native speaker population of 370 million and a learner population of 1.5 billion worldwide, the language remains on an upward trend, oftentimes at the cost of linguistic diversity in regions that have historically had high levels of multilingualism. For example, in Papua New Guinea, home to nearly 900 Indigenous languages, English and Tok Pisin, an English-based creole, have pushed Indigenous languages to the fringes of society among younger generations.

Now it appears that the trend of declining multilingualism in favor of English has reached another country with high levels of linguistic diversity: Singapore. Census data from the city-state was released in mid-June, showing that English is now the predominant language in the country—that is, a plurality (48.3% of residents) of the highly multilingual city-state use English as their primary language.

The ten-year period from 2010 to 2020 shows a large shift in Singapore’s linguistic dynamic—while a plurality of Singaporeans (35.6%) spoke Mandarin Chinese at home in 2010, the percentage of Mandarin Chinese-speaking Singaporeans has decreased to just 29.9%. Other Chinese dialects like Cantonese and Hakka declined even more dramatically, from 14.3% in 2010 to 8.7% in 2020. On the other hand, English, which was the second most widely used language in Singaporean households in 2010, has seen a significant increase in household usage: in 2010, just 32.3% of Singaporeans used English as their primary language at home, but now nearly half the city-state uses it.

English is one of the country’s four official languages, alongside Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tami (the latter two both saw declines in usage as well)—English has historically been considered the lingua franca among Singaporeans from differing cultural backgrounds, but the 2020 Census is the first time such a sharp contrast in language use has been documented in Singapore’s recent history. Malay is considered to be the city-state’s national language, due to the fact that the Malay people are recognized in the constitution as being indigenous to the region; however, Malay has not been a primary language for most of the population for many years.