MRT sign in Singapore

Learning Malay Without Really Meaning To

Malay is one of Singapore’s recognised languages, alongside English, Mandarin and Tamil. And while it was never on my radar before, it’s been hard to miss it on a recent trip to the Southeast Asian city state.

Picking up bits and pieces of Malay has been a lesson in learning via immersion. Not the usual kind, though. In this case, it’s immersion without intention. I didn’t plan to learn Malay on this trip at all. Instead, it’s been seeping in with me barely noticing. Quite simply, I’ve been spotting the same words and phrases so often, that I’m remembering them without even meaning to.

Malay has a beautiful rhythm to it; it’s surprised me how much I’ve enjoyed assimilating these distinctive-sounding new words and phrases into my memory, and it’s given me a real fascination for the language I didn’t have before. To share that newfound love, I’ve collated a few of my favourite bits of Singaporean Malay realia below. I hope they give you a feel for the shape of the language too, whether you’re learning it actively or otherwise!

Malay on the MRT

Singapore’s public transport network, the MRT, has rich pickings for Malay learners. It’s replete with public information notices, all of which have to be in the country’s recognised languages. It’s very often the language of do’s and don’t’s (very Singapore!), but it’s also simple, clear and full of basic, reusable vocabulary.

Harap jangan naik bila lampu berkelip

Multilingual sign, including Malay, on the Singapore MRT

Multilingual sign, including Malay, on the Singapore MRT

jangan – don’t
You see this everywhere, although the harap – also meaning ‘hope’ in Malay – converts it into the slightly politer please don’t.

naik – climb, ascend

bila – when

kelip – flash, blink
The ber- prefix in Malay can be used where we might use a present participle in English; hence, berkelip – flashing.

Jangan berdiri dekat pintu

A Malay sign on the Singapore MRT

A Malay sign on the Singapore MRT

Another jangan here – you do get used to don’t on public transport! 

diri – stand
Again, we have the ber- prefix here; it can be used in a stative sense, so maybe this is something like ‘be standing’.

dekat – close, near

pintu – door

Keselamatan di tangga bergerak

Multilingual sign, including Malay, on the Singapore MRT

Multilingual sign, including Malay, on the Singapore MRT

keselamatan – safety, security
Arabic learners might spot the root of this word – it’s ultimately from salaam, with Malay word formation morphology around it. The pattern ke-an is used in Malay to form abstract nouns like those ending in -ness in English.

di – on, at

tangga bergerak – escalator
Literally ‘moving stairs’. We see that ber- prefix again on bergerakmoving.

Sembilan sembilan sembilan

No visual for this one. That’s because I only ever experienced it as a tannoy announcement. It’s the repetition really makes it stick, wedged in, as it was, between swathes of otherwise unintelligible words that blended into one.

Sembilan sembilan sembilan simply means 999 – the emergency number in Singapore (as in the UK). Incidentally, nine is now also the only Tamil word that I know, after repeated exposure to oṉpatu oṉpatu oṉpatu in the same multilingual announcements!

What Next?

My unintentional Malay lessons have piqued the appetite for some proper lessons in the future. While it’s not a language that the course book publishers cater for hugely well, there are some great resources out there, including a trusty Colloquial. There’s also Teach Yourself, of course, 

But doesn’t the whole accidental learning exercise underscore the serendipity of polyglothood, the routes that lead us to our language adventures? So often, you don’t choose the language – the language chooses you.

Have you ever found yourself memorising words and phrases in a language without really meaning to? Maybe it was while travelling, like my story; but perhaps closer to home, too. Please share your ‘accidental language learning’ stories in the comments!

The Singapore skyline

Singapore, Polyglot Delight

I write this a little further-flung than usual, in stunning Singapore. It’s not just a pretty face; Singapore is alive with the linguistic diversity of multicultural waves crashing together. English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil intertwine in a place not quite like any other.

The language blend is a living, breathing aspect of daily life, from official communications to street-side chatter. Supported by official language policy, every community’s language is accorded equal respect. Deliberate language planning promotes harmony among its diverse ethnic groups by fostering positive multilingualism. English serves as a lingual bridge, while Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil preserve the city state’s dominant cultural identities.

Add to that the snatches of a hundred tourist languages on the streets, and it really is a language lover’s paradise destination.

Singapore – a Celebration of Languages

Out and about the city this week, I was lucky enough to catch a performance by talented Indian popstar Armaan Malik. You couldn’t pick a more appropriate visiting artist to carry the torch for linguistic diversity. Malik is renowned for his linguistic versatility, with a repertoire of twelve languages. Hearing him effortlessly switch between languages from Hindi to Tamil, neatly mirrored how Singapore embraces and celebrates multiple languages (not to mention the plethora of pop fusion bangers he treated us to!).

Indian pop sensation Armaan Malik performing at the Esplanade in Singapore.

Indian pop sensation Armaan Malik performing at the Esplanade in Singapore.

Beyond the music venues, alive with the desi sounds of the Kalaa Utsavam festival of Indian culture, every corner of Singapore offers a new linguistic encounter. Singlish, the local flavour of global English, buzzes in the markets, whilst public signage bristles with diverse scripts. If language shapes our experience of a place, Singapore is many places, all in one.

Multilingual signage in Singapore

Multilingual signage in Singapore

Admittedly, I didn’t expect non-anglophone Singapore to be that evident or accessible to visitors. I feared English would dominate, consigning the others to be just home languages, out of the public sphere.

But on the contrary, a xiéxié here and there is as common and as welcome as a thank you; Singaporeans seem to anticipate a natural fluidity in everyday language use. That, of course, means you can dive straight in and have fun dabbling as a language tourist.

More than a destination

Singapore is more than a physical destination. It’s has a multi-dimensional linguistic identity, reminding us of the power of language in shaping our perceptions of the world around us. Here, languages don’t just coexist; they create a dynamic, inclusive community.

It’s a mind-opening experience for any language lover – I thoroughly recommend spending some time here if you get the chance!