How Singapore became an English-speaking country
“Few international students who come to Singapore to study fully understand the intricacies of its complex language history”
Singapore was under British colonial rule for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, but few people outside an educated elite spoke English. It was also a diverse country with three major ethnic groups – Chinese, Indians, and Malays. How did a country consisting of non-native English speakers become a major study abroad destination for students from around the world, many of whom come to Singapore to study English or to study in English?
In our EF English Proficiency Index research, Singaporean adults have, on average, some of the highest English proficiency levels in the world, coming in third place out of 88 countries, trailing only Sweden and the Netherlands. This eighth edition of the EF EPI is based on test data from more than 1.3 million test takers around the world who took the EF Standard English Test (EF SET) in 2017. Singapore is the only country that has improved significantly year on year since 2014 on the EF EPI.
Singapore’s rise is inextricably linked to the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore from 1959 to 1990. Prime Minister Lee believed that widespread English proficiency would be key to building Singapore’s economy and developing its regional and global competitiveness. Under his plan, English would become the medium of instruction in Singaporean schools, while the mother-tongues of the country’s three major ethnic groups—Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—would be taught in schools as secondary languages. In the 1960s, Lee’s government made this unique bilingualism compulsory in all primary and secondary schools.
In 1987, Singapore became one of the first countries in the world to adopt English as the language of instruction for most school subjects, including math, science, and history. In the 1980s, the country also moved toward a Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach, where the focus is on creating authentic contexts in the classroom where students can practice using the language, rather than focusing on abstract grammar rules and rote vocabulary exercises.
Subsequent curricular reforms in 1991, 2001, and 2010 have reinforced Singapore’s commitment to CLT and added a domain for “learning how to learn” through English.
In 2011, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew established the English Language Institute of Singapore, charging it with the mission of driving “excellence” in English language teaching. The Institute has promoted the Whole School Approach to Effective Communication, whereby all school leaders and teachers commit themselves to develop students’ English communication skills.
“Few countries in the world have had one national leader who has so persistently and wholeheartedly advocated for language education as a key to both economic development and national identity”
Science teachers are trained to build students’ conceptual understanding through writing, and math teachers develop students’ mathematical reasoning skills through carefully guided class discussion. This whole-school approach means that students are developing their English skills in every class – from language arts to math and science.
Lee’s plan worked. This unique “East-West” model established English as the city’s medium for global business while upholding each ethnic community’s language. Along the way, it helped turn Singapore into a global economic powerhouse and a crossroads of international trade, as well as a top destination for international students – and especially those from other Southeast Asian countries – who want to learn English and Mandarin.
Few countries in the world have had one national leader who has so persistently and wholeheartedly advocated for language education as a key to both economic development and national identity. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy in Singapore will continue to be discussed and debated, but it’s clear that he was the driving force behind Singapore’s extraordinary successes in English education. Few international students who come to Singapore to study fully understand the intricacies of its complex language history.
Dr. Minh Tran is the Senior Director of Research and Academic Partnerships at EF Education First, where he works with ministries of education and universities on large-scale language assessment and research projects. He was a part of a global team that launched the EF Standard English Test , the world’s first free standardized English test. He is also the lead researcher and co-author of the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), the world’s largest ranking of countries by English skills.