If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be Chinese Singaporean, learning dialect might give you a clue.
I’m as “banana” as they come — fellow Singaporeans would say I’m yellow on the outside and white on the inside. My grandma and I frequently converse in Mandarin at home, but occasionally she’ll try to tell me a story or ask me a question in Teochew and I’ll stare blankly at her in response. I grew up speaking English to the rest of my family, so I don’t understand a word of Chinese dialect. In fact, the only reason I can speak Mandarin (albeit shakily and with great struggle) is because I used to watch Channel 8 dramas with her after school.
Growing up, I was always content not knowing how to speak Teochew. In what context would I need to? Most Singaporeans speak English (or Singlish, lah) – so there was never a compelling reason for me to learn the language. Yet, with the recent observation of International Mother Language Day on February 21, I wondered if I should reexamine the importance of speaking dialect, and its place in Singaporean Chinese culture.
Why Chinese dialect isn’t as common in modern-day Singapore
When our Chinese forefathers arrived in Singapore, they spoke various Chinese dialects. But by the time the 70s rolled around, it was apparent that to create a coherent and united society, there was a need to shed dialect in favour of common languages for Singapore’s economic progression.
For Chinese Singaporeans, this meant a stronger focus on speaking English and Mandarin. In 1979, the government launched the Speak Mandarin campaign to encourage the use of Mandarin instead of dialect. Chinese TV shows and radio channels also needed to obtain approval from the Media Development Authority to use dialect in their programmes.
“The move was necessary at the time, because when different dialect groups spoke only their own dialects, they couldn’t understand each other and that posed a huge social problem,” says Lee Ee Wurn, Programmes Director of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.
This has ensured that English and Mandarin take centrestage in our bilingual community. In 2021, only 11.8% of households in Singapore still use Chinese dialect to converse at home! That’s a drop of almost 19% since 2010.
But is dialect really dead?
Initially, it appeared to me that Chinese dialect was dying out. In results-driven Singapore where we value practicality, there’s a belief that dialect isn’t as important as the English language – especially in our journey to achieving a successful career. Additionally, there’s an unspoken misconception that dialect is only spoken by the lower rung of society.
While it’s true that speaking dialect isn’t as prevalent, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in recent years, more Chinese Singaporeans have shown interest in picking it up. There’s been a slow but steady revival and a change in perception. People are starting to realise the important role language plays in keeping us in touch with our roots and connecting with the older generation (especially those who are more fluent in dialect than Mandarin).
A spokesperson from the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan shares that in the last five years, young people in their 20s and 30s have begun enrolling themselves in basic dialect classes. “Many of them want a better understanding and appreciation of the Teochew culture,” they say. “The Singapore government has also started softening its approach, allowing more Chinese dialect programmes to be rolled out to the community.”
This includes the dialect TV series Ho Seh Bo that was released in 2019 (followed by a sequel in 2020), as well as dialect programmes that conveyed important health and safety messages to senior citizens during the initial outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore.
Ski Yeo, the co-founder of LearnDialect.Sg, tells us that many young students take the initiative to pick up dialect on their own. The reason? They want to communicate better with family members. She shares about a student who’s in the process of learning Hokkien to connect with her ill grandmother. “The conversations they had previously were largely pleasantries due to the communication gap,” she says. To see the prioritisation of family and connection is heartwarming.
The key to our history and heritage
Despite the interest, as Singapore progresses with a rise in higher education, there’s a shift away from tradition. With the prevalence of social media, the youth of today are inducted into other ideologies, beliefs and lifestyles. Even with the desire to connect with our elderly, is there any real reason to continue learning Chinese dialect when the need for it will soon vanish?
I posed this question to Richard Cheng, head of youth at Hainan Hwee Kuan. He mentioned something his mother told him just before he left Singapore to study in an Australian university in his 20s. She said, “Just remember that you can change your religion, beliefs and way of life, but you will always be Hainanese.”
What continues to tie us together is a common history and heritage that we must not forget. “In the midst of us chasing achievements, we must remember there are important, intangible things that cannot be measured in the same way,” Richard says.
In speaking Chinese dialect, we open pathways that connect us with our history and culture. The stories of the older generation are our stories to preserve as well. “If you aren’t able to speak to your grandparents, you only understand the current perception you have of them that spans (maybe) just the last 20 years. You know they picked you up from school, fed you and looked after you,” he says. “But they’re not able to tell you what they had to endure to come to Singapore all those years ago, nor the sacrifices they needed to make to pave the way for you and I.”
So, where to from here?
It feels like I’ve fallen too far behind to begin picking up dialect. Where would I even start? Of course, dialect lessons like those offered at LearnDialect.Sg and clan associations crossed my mind.
But according to Richard and Ee Wurn, there are several other ways to pick up the language if you don’t have time to attend a class. “Find a reason to speak to your grandparents and maybe even stall owners at the hawker centres. Learn simple phrases in Chinese dialect, and start conversations with them by asking how their day went or if they’ve eaten,” Richard says.
The journey of picking up Chinese dialect probably won’t be easy, especially if you’re a banana like me. But I’m positive that starting small, and starting somewhere, is enough. Be right back, I’m going to ask my grandma what she wants to eat for lunch (maybe in Teochew).