Officially quadrilingual: Multilingualism in Singapore and Switzerland


by Jakob R. E. Leimgruber, 9 Sep 2011, 1500-1600, HSS Seminar Room 3

I must confess that the seminar on Friday was the first I completely understood since the last… four or five seminars. This one was on comparing the language policies between Singapore and Switzerland. Dr Leimgruber first presented the cases for both countries separately, then concluded with some similarities and differences. I’ll just skip to the end for you.


Well, superficially, both countries have four official languages – SG: Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English (this is the order listed on our constitution), CH: German, French, Italian, Romansh. Both countries have largely harmonious co-existence of 3 or 4 main cultural and linguistic communities. Both countries may have four official languages, but many more are spoken within their boundaries. There is a shift towards official languages amongst the population, but only in specific cases – English, Mandarin in Singapore, and German, French in Switzerland.


Monolingualism (both individual and institutional) are predominant in Switzerland, but bilingualism and/or multilingualism is the norm in Singapore.

Linguistic variation is based on geography (a.k.a. the territoriality principle) in Switzerland – if you see the map of the languages spoken below, you’ll notice a very interesting thing: there are very clear and distinct boundaries, whereas in Singapore, it’s based on ethnicity (i.e. the mother tongue policy). The latter could also be due to history and politics (as commented by a member of the audience).

With regard to the issue of English as an inter-group language, it is institutionalized in Singapore, but still largely informal in Switzerland.

Top-down policies are more explicit in Singapore, less so in Switzerland, also more effective in Singapore, less so in Switzerland.

Conversely, bottom-up activity in Singapore involves regular discussions of the merits of Singlish, and occasional support for dialects/Singlish. In Switzerland, there are strong debates on dialect vs. standard in Greater Switzerland, but there is strong emotional attachment to dialects.

Prof. Francis Bond mentioned to me one possible difference between the two countries is the motivation behind the policymakers. The main purpose of policies in Switzerland appears to tend to retain the linguistic status quo (German in German areas, French in French, Italian in Italian and Romansh in Romansh), whereas policymakers seem to want to create a new status quo in Singapore (i.e. more English, more Mandarin instead of dialects, more bilinguals…).

Overall, both countries are sociolinguistic islands in terms of constitutional recognition of 4 official/national languages, in terms of peaceful cohabitation of several language groups, and in terms of active and conscious self-definition as multilingual (a.k.a. emblematic quadrilingualism).

(Oh, side note, one curious fact about Singapore: it’s a city state, i.e. a nation state that is its own city – and there are only 3 city states left in the world: Singapore, Monaco, and Vatican City!)

Simin, Year 3

(P.S. Do let me know if you want me to summarise the cases for Switzerland and Singapore, if you’re not familiar with the language situations and/or policies in both nations.)

Edit: If you’d like to help Dr Leimgruber with his research, and you’re a 18-25 year old Singaporean, please do fill in this survey –


4 responses »

  1. What came to mind some years ago — and which I particularly liked — was that, unlike Switzerland, the four official languages in Singapore are very very different from one another. Those four official ones spoken in Switzerland, on the other hand, are closer to each other (as Romance languages, although I think Romansh seems a little more distant?).

  2. Yeah, that’s definitely a big difference — few languages are further apart (genetically) than Tamil and English or Chinese or indeed Malay. Clearly the four national languages in Switzerland are much more closely related, even when they are not mutually intelligible.

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