Can Use Singlish or Not, har?

Have you ever been told by a teacher that you shouldn’t use Singlish in the classroom? Most likely you have. Yet, Singlish is so much a part of life in Singapore. Is there a role for it in the classroom?

In fact, there can be a place for Singlish in the classroom, but we must know when we can use it and when we should use Standard English. This is called “code-switching”.

Loosely defined, Singlish is a colloquial—or informal—form of English spoken in Singapore. It is English-based yet incorporates elements of Malay and Chinese dialects. Some examples are “chope” for reserving a seat or tacking “lah” onto words as in “OK lah”. It has become so much a part of Singaporeans’ speech that dictionaries have been created to explain the meaning of Singlish words. The Singlish Dictionary and Talking Cock  are two examples.

Did you know that Singaporeans aren’t the only ones with a colloquial form of English? All English speakers, even those from “native-English” countries like the UK, Australia and the USA, have colloquial forms of English. Within these countries, there can even be multiple forms of colloquial English associated with particular regions, such as the Yorkshire dialect in the UK, or with particular ethnic groups, such as African-American English in the US.

Colloquial language helps express our membership in a particular group. If you speak the colloquial language correctly, you identify yourself to others in the group as a member. In other words, colloquial language has ‘rules’ about how things should and should not be said just like Standard English.


Colloquial language can also build rapport. If both people in a conversation can understand the same colloquial language, you know a bit about the other person’s background and some things that you have in common. Colloquial language is also used in informal situations so people associate it with being relaxed and casual.

In the classroom then, Singlish can be very useful in fostering a spirit of cooperation and team work in a group. There is, however, a trick to it. If you don’t get it right, you’ll still sound strange and not fit in with the group. Look at this example from SINfully-speedy-syllable-saving EnGLISH.

So Singlish can be used to build rapport in a team that’s doing project or group work. It can be used to express a common identity with other Singaporeans. When should it not be used?

Since colloquial languages are informal, they shouldn’t be used in a formal context. For instance, you can use Singlish when you and your groupmates are gathering information or putting together a presentation. It should not be used in the report you submit to your tutor or in an oral presentation of your research.

And since colloquial language excludes people who don’t know it, you should be careful using Singlish with non-Singaporeans. If your group has non-Singaporeans and they don’t understand what you are talking about, they will not feel part of the team. However, you can still sprinkle a bit of Singlish into your language. Some “lah”, “leh” and “lor” will probably not cause incomprehension. A bit of Singlish can make your group discussion more relaxed and informal—as long as everyone understands what is said.

So, while Singlish may be used in informal situations to express a shared background and build rapport in a group, you should be aware that there is no place for it in a formal setting or in formal writing such as oral presentations or wtitten reports.

 Think you know Singlish? Take our short quiz below on using Singlish. There will be a prize for the best answers.

What are your thoughts about Singlish in the classroom? Let us know in the comment box below. The most insightful comment on this gets a prize.

Do you have any examples of when you should or should not use colloquial language? This could be any type of colloquial language and not just Singlish. Jsut send the link,  including a very brief (100-word) write-up about why it is useful to We will be giving a prize to the one that’s most useful for students.

There’s no limit on the number of comments or links you send us. We want to hear from you!

Take the Singlish Quiz                                                                                                                                                                               Try the RESOURCES Quiz



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  1. I think that it is OK to use Singlish during small group discussions. It helps to lessen the anxiety that one faces when working with a new group of people. Rapport can also be built easily. However, there is a need to be sensitive when using Singlish. For example, we may be working in groups that consist of non-Singaporeans who cannot understand what is being said; therefore, there is a need to make the discussion more inclusive by doing some translation. When talking to professors or asking a question in class, I think Singlish may be slightly inappropriate as Singlish is an informal form of English that may seem insincere. Generally, I would say that it is OK to use Singlish in the classroom but we should always assess the context before deciding whether to use Singlish or not. Even if we decide to use Singlish, let us be mindful of those who may not understand.

  2. We would like to congratulate Lim Jie Wen for getting all of the answers correct on our Singlish quiz.

    For your information, here are the answers to the questions.

    1. When is it OK to use Singlish? Choose the best answer.
    C. When providing an example in an essay on culture

    2. When is it NOT OK to use Singlish? Choose the best answer.
    B. Asking a question during a lecture

    3. Which one is NOT Singlish?
    D. None. All of the above is Singlish.

    4. Name ONE famous Singaporean who can code-switch between Singlish and Standard English effectively.
    Michelle Chong

    5. Is it possible for a non-Singaporean to speak Singlish well? Why or why not?
    Yes, it is possible. As Singlish is a colloquial language which is English-based yet incorporates elements of Malay and Chinese dialects, anyone who lives in Singapore long enough and understand how the language works will be able to speak Singlish. Environment plays an important role. For example, a child, born in Singapore (without a Singapore citizenship), who has gone through the education in a government school in Singapore and mingle with fellow Singaporeans through out his life may be able to speak Singlish well.

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