Is there still a place for Chinese dialects in Singapore?

by | Jun 17, 2020 | Cantonese, Dialect Articles, Hokkien, Teochew

With Chinese dialects slowly going obsolete among the younger generation, three youths fluent in their respective dialects share the importance of dialect in their lives.

Once ridiculed by her peers for speaking in dialect, Student Quek Ji Kiat loathed speaking Hakka and thought that it was uncool. “Back in primary school, my friends would laugh at me whenever I spoke in dialect, so I gradually started to resent using it,” the 19-year-old recounted. Today, Ji Kiat would consider her own command of Hakka at a native level. With Hakka being the main language spoken at home, the Chinese Studies student was exposed to the dialect at a fairly young age. However, Ji Kiat only started to appreciate dialect in her teens, when she noticed that both her parents and grandparents spoke Hakka on a regular basis, and were more comfortable communicating in dialect. Her rediscovery of dialect brought her closer to her family, especially her grandparents, who predominantly spoke Hakka.

But youths like Ji Kiat fluent in their own dialects are no longer a common sight these days. According to the General Household Survey conducted by the Department of Statistics in 2015, only 12.6% of households primarily speak dialect at home. This was a steady decrease from 15.8% in 2010, and 18.2% in 2005. Of the 12.6% of Singaporeans mainly conversing in dialect at home, only 3.4% were aged between 15 to 29. With the declining trend of young Singaporeans proficient in dialects, it leads to the question of whether dialects will still have a place in Singapore in the future.

20-year-old Lee Xuan Jin’s love for dialects came from the comprehension that rather than Mandarin, Hokkien was his true mother tongue. Just like Ji Kiat, he picked up Hokkien from his family, having lived with his paternal grandmother for a large part of his childhood. “Towards the end of primary school, I realized that the language my ancestors spoke in the past was not Mandarin, but rather Hokkien and Teochew.” For Xuan Jin, learning Hokkien was a way for him to connect with his cultural roots.

Using Peh-oe-ji, an old form of romanization used by the Christians in Taiwan, he started ‘Writing in Hokkien’, a Facebook page where he frequently posts flashcards of common Hokkien words. With this, he aims to ignite interest in the dialect and promote literacy in Hokkien among the younger Singaporeans. To him, knowing dialect is a crucial step to understanding his roots, and learn first-hand about his ancestral culture. “It also makes our dialect group something that is part of our identity, rather than just an indication on our birth certificates,” Xuan Jin strongly believes that youths today should actively embrace their dialect. “It’s 2019, shouldn’t we be welcoming of the idea of having not one, but multiple identities?” He maintains that the social prejudice against dialects is a contributing reason for the lack of usage among youths today, and with the increasing interest in dialects among youths such as himself, he hopes that change will be soon to come.

For Ski, having to pick up Cantonese when she moved to Hong Kong first opened her eyes to the difficulties that one faced while learning dialects, and a volunteering encounter inspired her to start her own initiative to bridge the difficulties between dialect learners and the language. She realized that many of the elderly at the old folk’s home she volunteered at spoke mainly dialects while most of the volunteers did not, which greatly hindered their communication. Today, Ski is one of the founders of which offers dialect lessons to Singaporeans of all ages and hopes to keep these “dying” languages alive among the younger generation of Singaporeans.

Joey Teo’s knowledge of Hokkien was a gift that aided her in voluntary work. As an avid volunteer, the 19-year-old regularly worked with the elderly, most of whom were unable to speak both English and Mandarin. Although exposed to Hokkien since young, Joey never saw it as anything particularly useful until she started volunteering with old folks homes after completing her A-Levels. Knowing Hokkien allowed her to communicate more effectively with the elderly she works with. “They are more likely to open up to me just because I speak a dialect that they are comfortable with.” For this, Joey is incredibly grateful towards her parents, for emphasizing on the importance of dialect at home.

Contributed by Wong Shi Yun

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1 Comment

  1. Mark Yong

    The title of the article itself illustrates the problem. If Singapore is indeed sincere in its intentions to revive the true ancestral languages of its Chinese community, then stop using the word “dialects”, i.e. in contradistinction to Mandarin. If Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. are “dialects”, then rightly speaking, Mandarin is also a “dialect”, i.e. the dialect of Beijing, one of many dialects chosen to be the de facto national language of China. Until this “Chinese = Mandarin; dialects = anything other than Mandarin” mindset is dispelled, there is no point talking about reviving the Southern Chinese languages in China, because the stigma will always prevail.


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