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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton May 24, 2021

Multilingualism among the elderly Chinese in Singapore: an oral account

  • Vanessa Ellen Mei Yin Nah , Francesco Cavallaro ORCID logo , Ivan Panović ORCID logo and Bee Chin Ng ORCID logo EMAIL logo


This study aims to qualitatively document the histories of Singapore’s Chinese multilingual elderly. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven Chinese Singaporeans aged 75 years and above on how and why they acquired the languages they speak and their attitudes towards these linguistic varieties, of which many are declining in usage. Five participants were multilingual and spoke three or more languages fluently; two spoke only two languages and were included for a balanced and holistic perspective. Common themes from the interviews were identified and discussed. One key finding was that communicative necessity and practicality naturally fuelled language learning. Outside of the home, multilingual individuals acquired varieties from conversing with friends, relatives and customers, or as an educational requirement. Language was tied to ethnic belonging, but, generally, pride to speak a linguistic variety was linked to its functional value, not its associated ethnic identity. Unhappiness was expressed at the waning of the Chinese vernaculars and Baba Malay in Singapore today. Such language loss was seen as a sombre, but unavoidable consequence of Singapore’s globalisation and modernisation.

Corresponding author: Bee Chin Ng, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Singapore, E-mail:


The researchers would like to acknowledge Mrs Rose Choo, Mr Jackie Choo, Madam Teo Pheck Har, Madam Rosie Tan Lai Hoe, Dr Tan Suan Ek, Madam Helen Tan Kang Neo, and Mrs Lily Samuel for kindly consenting to participate in this research project. We wish to acknowledge the funding support for this project from Nanyang Technological University under the Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) programme.


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Published Online: 2021-05-24
Published in Print: 2021-07-27

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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