The Death of Dialect
If you are Chinese, Mandarin is your alloted Mother Tongue, regardless if you speak Hokkien, Cantonese, Baba Malay, English, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese etc at home. The draconian tabula rasa language policy was one driven by pragmatism and has not been challenged since the 60s perhaps. An old ST forum letter, nicely argued to show us that there is an undercurrent of the need to relook this Mandarin-only policy. Can the clans be an agent of change in reviving interest in dialect as an extra curriculum in schools?
March 17, 2007
Dialect has made Singapore Chinese culture rich and colourful, but it is at risk of dying out
I HAD the privilege of growing up speaking English, Mandarin and dialect. However, dialect (meaning spoken Chinese or fangyan) is at risk of dying out and little is done to conserve and promote this integral part of local Chinese ethnicity.
If conservation of historical sites is given immense support because they are important to local culture, more should be done for dialect. Dialect has profoundly influenced local Chinese culture in numerous ways. From our dialect-inspired dishes to native lingo, dialect has made Singapore Chinese culture so rich and colourful.
As a mother, I am concerned that the global blah of TV, fast food, Internet and so on is diluting the appreciation of our roots. The local situation is worsened with increasingly more children raised by foreign maids. Local children are sent to countless enrichment classes for advancement, but given little time to learn their cultural heritage. We cannot stop modernisation, yet it is eroding local Chinese ethnicity rapidly. Many minority dialects here have dwindled or are already completely lost.
Beyond teaching our children intellectual cultural knowledge, simple dialect-speaking helps identify one’s roots immediately. Dialect is fundamental to Chinese heritage. When I started speaking dialect to my daughter, she instinctively connected herself to our family roots. Previously, our cultural roots were just ‘head knowledge’ to her. Now, she is proud that her father is Hainanese and her mother is Cantonese. She appreciates how fascinating her family history is.
Dialect links us to our roots. Many young local Chinese do not know, or even care, which dialect group they belong to. We should still use English and Mandarin language, but dialect-speaking should not be forgotten in the process. Many Chinese do not communicate in dialect to their young anymore. If something is not done to promote dialect, local Chinese culture will have little profundity eventually.
Dialect is a beautiful aspect of Chinese culture. It is not a language for the ‘old’ or ‘uncouth’. The next generation needs to see the value of dialect – it delves into our roots and reveals a bigger picture of ourselves.
Can dialect survive by itself in Singapore? Like environmental conservation, more must be done before it is too late. Everyone has a part to play. Perhaps because we are a majority ethnic group, we think dialect will thrive naturally. Unfortunately, it will not. We do not want to wait till the last breathe of dialect is spoken to realise what is authentic to us is truly lost.
Joanna Chan Yea Ling (Mdm)