Lee Shan Chan
Vanessa Chua
Seau Fah Foo
Elizabeth Pang
Chew Leng Poon
Sarila Saharudin
Ministry of Education

Language and Literacy

Singapore has a multiracial and multiethnic population with a diverse language environment. The four official languages of Singapore are Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil, and English. Malay is the national language, while English is the language of administration and education. Mandarin is widely used among the Chinese population in place of other Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, and Foochow. Besides Tamil, other languages spoken by the Indian population include Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Hindi, and Bengali. The percentage of the resident population age 15 and older who are literate in one or more languages has increased steadily over the years to 97 percent in 2015.1

As the lingua franca, English binds the various ethnic groups together. The percentage of the resident population age 15 and older who are literate in English increased from 71 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2015.2 Over the years, there has been a continuing shift in the profile of English language learners in Singapore’s schools, with more students speaking and exposed to English at home. Between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of the resident population age 5 and older speaking English predominantly at home increased from 23 percent to 37 percent.3 This is concurrent with the rise in the national level of English literacy.

Bilingualism is an essential component of Singapore’s education system. In 2015, 73 percent of the literate resident population in Singapore was literate in two or more languages, an increase from 56 percent in 2000.4 Language and communication demands have increased steadily in a connected global economy; hence, mastery of English is regarded as important and necessary for Singapore. English is the medium of instruction for all academic subjects at all grade levels, except for the mother tongue language subjects (Malay, Chinese, or Tamil, depending on the student’s ethnicity). Furthermore, students are exposed to different standard varieties of English spoken in other parts of the world. The desired outcome of language education is for every student to have the language competencies and skills needed for learning, work, and life. Therefore, the English curriculum aims to build a strong foundation in spoken English and grammar.