Hokkien is a dying language and we may lose more than just words.
Hokkien is a dying language in Singapore. One foot is in the grave, that is for sure. In fact, very soon, we may find no new speakers of Hokkien.
Recently, at a intergenerational community event, I had a first-hand encounter of how serious this problem is. Despite how meaningful the occasion was meant to be, it failed terribly as young children as well as most of the adult facilitators were unable to communicate and connect with the seniors in Hokkien.
In a similar nature, while volunteering at a nursing home, I noticed that majority of the seniors would pass instructions in Hokkien. However, most healthcare professionals and volunteers speak English and/or Mandarin, leading to a communication breakdown among them.
To illustrate, there was one day when I noticed a nurse had unintentionally wheeled a senior to a spot right under an air-conditioned unit. Barely a few minutes later, the senior was visibly shivering and turning white. Even though the nurse was merely a few steps away, the senior chose not to call out to the nurse for help. I walked up hurriedly and brought her to a warmer area. I asked the senior in Hokkien,
“An zua li bo gio missy lai dao ka ciu?” (“为什么你没叫护士来帮?”; “Why didn’t you ask the nurse to help you?”)
“Wa bueh hiao gong ang mo weh, yee lang bueh meng pek wah eh.” (“我不会说英语，他们不会明白我的.”; “I don’t speak English. They won’t understand me anyway.”)
She expressed her exasperation in Hokkien and conceded to her fate.
We depended on seniors to build our nation. Now, we are killing their language and expecting them to speak ours instead.
Imagine how would you feel if you are in the shoes of these seniors. Bear in mind, you are unable to express your world in your own language. Instead, you are reduced to mere gestures and grunts, and perhaps simple words such as “yes” and “no”.
Your identity is suppressed. You think you are dispensable and no longer important to the society. You lose your sense of belonging and connection with the surrounding world. In short, you feel abandoned and you are an outsider in your own country.
Gradually, you give up talking to people. Not only you have lost your ease of physical mobility, it seems you are now losing the right to speak too. Yes, Hokkien is a dying language, but what about yourself? Do you not matter anymore?
The dying language problem just got personal.
Now, recall about the last time you visited your grandparents or had a gathering with the older extended family members. What language did you speak in?
I personally know of many Hokkien-speaking seniors who picked up English or Mandarin, out of pure love as well as a desperation to connect with the younger generations.
“No choice, the children these days do not speak Hokkien!” I have heard that statement from many seniors time and time again.
A thought unwittingly came to my mind one day. What about the other way round?
How many people of Hokkien descent are actively learning to speak Hokkien so that they can get to know their grandparents and their roots better?
How much of the older generation’s ideas, knowledge and values are the younger ones missing out, just because they are unable to communicate in Hokkien?
What about you? Is Hokkien a dying language in your family?
Hokkien is a Dying Language, based on UNESCO AD Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages
There seem to be undisputed evidence that Hokkien is on its path of extinction, by the standards of UNESCO AD Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages.
Absolute number & Proportion of Hokkien Speakers within the total population
Based on the General Household Survey conducted in Singapore in 2015, there are 1,151,285 Hokkiens in Singapore. This represents approximately 40% of Singapore’s Chinese population. However, of these people, only 205,300 of them (17.8%) indicated that they speak Hokkien most frequently at home.
With English as the main language as well as medium of instruction in public school education, coupled with the Speak Mandarin campaign in 1979, Singapore Chinese today do not have to use Hokkien for everyday interactions. In addition, given that Hokkien is not the language of international trade, it is too easy to agree that there is no practical need to pass the language on to the next generation.
Hokkien has not been actively passed on to the next generation.
Our multiple interviews with young parents reflected a general lack of interest in the dying language. The common replies ranged from a curt “what for?”, to “I would rather they learn Mandarin or other languages.”
Even if one wish to learn Hokkien, the educational materials made available have been minimal, if not, next to none. In fact, here’s a challenge for you. Step into a bookstore in Singapore. How many books written in Hokkien can you find? How many books are about the heritage of Hokkiens?
The presence of Hokkien in local media is also inappreciable. To illustrate, when was the last time you watched a Hokkien show or listen to a Hokkien programme on the radio?
Singaporean dialect drama series “Eat Already?” was in its fourth season this year and could be the series finale. Whilst a great effort to reach dialect-speaking seniors, it occupied an off-peak slot (i.e. every Friday at 12pm) and was hardly an effective medium to trigger interest among the younger generations.
The death of Hokkien will be the death of a culture.
Hokkien is taking its last bow soon. It would take no more than a few more decades before the once-native language becomes a foreign tongue on the streets of Singapore. When we lose Hokkien, we lose a whole set of fascinating culture including traditions, myths, stories and songs. Now what will you do to help save your language and cultural identity?
It’s never too late to learn your dialect. We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!
Not only in Singapore, but Malaysia as well….especially in the urban area. Most kids these days are glued to the English or Mandarin YouTube channel and … this I believe is the biggest cause of why Hokkien is dying.
Now, I’m putting effort in teaching my two kids Hokkien and they are slowly improving.
Hopefully, Hokkien will flourish again.
Wow, that’s amazing effort, Boo Jiun! Do your children like speaking Hokkien? Perhaps you can share more about their learning journey and the challenges that they face. It will be an interesting read!
Philippine Hokkien has also been dying lately. The case is similar as to Singapore, Only Seniors would speak it and the younger generation’s parents refused to pass it on to their kids due to it’s minimal usage in the country. I really hope all hokkiens from all over the world would get together to rebreathe some life into this dying language
Hi Patrick, we share your sentiments. We are doing all we can, and certainly hope that we can reach out to more people (especially the younger generation) to learn Hokkien!
Same here in Indonesia , especially because most of us speak Indonesian and English now.
Most Chinese people here are oblivious to their native tongue , its much much worse than singapore.
This is partially due to the fact that speaking chinese in our country back then gets you in trouble and in certain regions still now.
Wow, Jo. This is interesting and we love to find out more. Are there any good reads (articles, blogs, books, etc) that you’ll recommend for us to learn more about the history, evolution or the current state of Indonesian Hokkien?
Failure of the elder generation by choosing not to reinforce Hokkien during their kid’s formative days at home.
Any personal experience that you can share, Marc?
This was a very interesting article and I understand many of the sentiments you’ve mentioned. I am one of the members of the younger generation and my parents immigrated to an English speaking country where I never learnt how to read Chinese. Whenever I visited my grandparents and great grandparents I could only speak and understand Chinese and some simple Hokkien terms that I never realised were Hokkien. I found it frustrating sometimes because I couldn’t understand them and didn’t know where to learn from when I was younger. Recently I did more research into the topic and I wish to learn Hokkien to be able to fully understand my grandparents and listen to the stories they have to tell. I think it’s tragic that people are abandoning Hokkien and by extension, the older generation. But I believe that one of the reasons why Hokkien is dieing as a language is the lack of resources that are visible to the younger generation. There is a lack of exposure to the language due to the more popular languages dominating the platforms. But I believe there is still hope for this language. In Taiwan, I’ve noticed that some of my younger cousins are quite good at speaking Hokkien and the language is still pretty prevalent in general speech. The attitude I see from some people is that it’s part of their identity. So I think that the language and thus culture may still survive until the point where the culture can be preserved onto the internet for future generations to witness.
Very thoughtful response, Jeff. Indeed, it can be challenging for our younger generation to pick up the language due to the limited amount of resources available to learn Singapore’s version of Hokkien. So do share with us if you come across any great resources as we love to share them with other Hokkien learners too!
Its a no win situation. For dialect speakers in Australia, you are encouraged to learn Mandarin and certain job opportunities are tied to being able to converse in Mandarin. They are not interested if you know a dialect or not.
Indeed, Belinda. Dialects are often deemed not practical enough for work purposes, isn’t it?
I’m 26 yo, Malaysian, and I can speak basic Hokkien (but not enough to hold a full conversation).
I can’t read Mandarin characters so to me, there is no written language for Hokkien. I learned some basic Hokkien from my friends in school and a little from my Grandma. But if they didn’t teach me, I don’t know how I could’ve picked it up. Even if there are books for it, I wouldn’t be able to read it.
People around me rn aren’t actively interacting in Hokkien. Also, I moved to KL, where the main dialect is Cantonese (I couldn’t pick up cantonese either lol). My Hokkien has definitely deteriorated as I get older. And even if I really like Hokkien and I know that it’s a dying language, I’m not likely to teach my future children Hokkien, cos I only know the basics and seeing how little I use it, I imagine they are going to use it even less. I don’t see how it would be practical to teach them. FYI writing this comment, the word Hokkien is highlighted as a mistake, whereas Cantonese isn’t. It’s sad but it’s reality. At least it’s the national language in Taiwan. It’s not going to die out anytime soon there.
There isn’t an accepted written format for Hokkien (闽南语), so that adds to the difficulty.
One common form of written Hokkien in Taiwan uses the Roman alphabet, developed by missionaries long ago, and is able to capture all the sounds of Hokkien well. Like with all Chinese dialects, Chinese characters do not encompass the full range of words in the dialects so new characters specific to the dialect would have to be invented.
Same issue here! I’m 27 and picked up Hokkien in Penang about the same way you did. I went to abroad for a couple years to study, and whenever I visited Penang I noticed that people would respond in Mandarin when I tell them something in Hokkien. I don’t know enough Hokkien to pass it down to future kids, but there are some Malaysian Hokkien-specific things (like food especially) they could learn about. It’s unfortunate that there are not a lot of learning resources for Hokkien and other dialects compared to Mandarin.
Where can I learn hokkien in Kuala Lumpur??
Gua see Ang Mor Lang . Gua eh heow kong kong Hokkien weh (Hokkien wah ) chin koo leow
Gua chor kang Singapore 1971- 2005 , Boh cho kang leow .Lau leow lah !
Chitau gua eh choo siPulau Pinang . Penang Hokkien ,S’pore Hokkien boh sur sang
Singapore lang kong ‘Ai tng leow’ .Penang lang kong ‘Ai tui leow ‘
Gor cat ,gor puat . Chia png buey ? Chia pui buey ?
But really I’m pure English /…Gua boh pien lu lah !!
Gua si Ang Mor lang ,Eh heow kong Tng Nang weh ,(Hokkien wah), chin koo leow …Gor chap Nee !
In southern Thailand, it s really dying as replacing by Thai. Even some provinces still have hokkien culture presented through out food, belief, architectures or else, not knowing roots culture such hokkien language could obstruct deep understandings while trying to research for more to get initiative concept of each things.
Hey Min Hok, this sounds similar to what is happening in Singapore. Are you aware of any efforts by any communities or individuals in southern Thailand to help preserve the Hokkien language?
As a child growing up in Australia, I managed to pick up a bit of Hokkien while visiting my relatives in Malaysia every few years. I have wanted to build on my knowledge of the language for a while. I tried to locate Hokkien language resources aimed at English speakers – however, I haven’t had much luck. Are there any resources (including books) that you know of that are currently in print and that are aimed at English speakers? It would be great if more such resources could be developed. Maybe this could be a collaborative project between members of the Hokkien speaking community?
Hey Rachel, we are working on this at the moment. Exciting moments ahead!
In China, the government issued a policy document in 2020 saying that they want to preserve the dialects, so not all hope is lost. Speaking of which, if you go on Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, there is a lot of dialect content on there. I learnt most of my Teochew from Douyin. And I also use it to brush up my Hokkien and my Cantonese. You’ll actually find that all these dialects have their own unique idioms that just don’t make sense in Mandarin.
Thank you so much, Superdog. We will check out the content on Douyin!