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Languages in Singapore: ‘Am I the only person who can’t speak in four tongues?’

By: Amy Moore

Okay, I admit it: I consider myself a fairly intelligent person. I can navigate my way around Suntec City like a pro, I passed my driving licence first time and I even have a degree. Yet, despite these achievements, I am sadly lacking in the linguistic department.

While my partner, helper and children speak two, three and even four languages each, sadly I’ve only ever mastered English – and that’s only because it’s my mother tongue. I learnt French at school yet still only remember one phrase: “Parlez-vous English?

The thing is, everyone speaks English these days, don’t they? So I’ve always had the perfect excuse not to learn another language. That was until last year when my jolly German friends invited me to Oktoberfest celebrations. Before I knew it, I was decked out like Heidi in a figure-hugging dirndl, swinging the beers and toasting in German, “Ein, zwei, drei … super!

By the end, I knew knew all the German drinking songs, and fuelled by the exuberance of the night, I announced to all at the table that I was going to learn German. Ja! I mean, how hard could it be?

The language of beer is universal 

Just a few weeks later, I had enrolled in a Beginners’ German Course and gone along to the first class. My classmates were a mix of Singaporean cabin crew who were keen to learn the German version of “Do you want the chicken or the fish?”, a few girls dating German guys (10 out of 10 for forward thinking, girls), a smattering of serious business guys in suits, and me.

It all started off in a rather jolly fashion as we learnt to introduce ourselves and say hello and goodbye. However, soon the realities of learning a new language sank in. German, to be fair, is not the easiest of languages to learn; as Mark Twain says,

“A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.”

Suddenly, my previously carefree existence was dominated by course homework, vocabulary lists and tests. It was like being back at school, only worse. At least at school I knew someone would have forgotten their homework, but in this class everyone was super-keen, organised, motivated and, it seemed, suddenly fluent!

While I struggled with the der, die and das, the rest of the class was confidently asking directions to the nearest train station. “You need to practise,” said my instructor firmly. “Just talk German.”

As luck would have it, my partner was invited to a drinks party hosted by his new German boss. Naturally I begged to tag along. Eager to engage in conversation, I started with, “Wie gehts?” (“How are you?”). The boss seemed impressed and asked how I was in return. Smiling, I replied that I was hot. (Can’t escape the Singapore heat, even at a party.) But the poor man nearly choked on his wine. I had unwittingly told him I was horny!

Despite this embarrassment, I’m proud to report that I did persevere with the course and thanks to my marvellous teacher I managed to pass my German test. My partner’s boss now winks when he sees me! Das ist gut, ja?