Managing Diversities
Dialects – where do they belong in our language environment?

Dialects – where do they belong in our language environment?

By Zhou Rongchen

In a Mandarin dialogue organised by Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat expressed that the main focus of the Education Ministry is to achieve a good standard of English and mother tongue, and that dialects are an unnecessary burden to students in our increasingly complex linguistic environment (“Dialects will burden school kids more”, My Paper, 22 April 2013).

Despite the government’s long-standing stance against dialects, there are voices that have consistently called for the return of dialects to the language environment of Singapore. For example, a recent online petition called for the reintroduction of dialects on local television and radio programmes.

Dialects as living languages

With the younger generation of Singaporeans growing up in an English-dominated environment, more Chinese Singaporeans feel the need to retrace their cultural heritage by getting reacquainted with their respective dialects. Mandarin, although an official language for the Chinese community, was not the true mother tongue of most Chinese households when it was first introduced in Singapore. Although many young Singaporeans today have since grown up with Mandarin as a major home language, the fact remains that it is still very much a learned language and a foreign tongue to many people over 40 years old. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the reintroduction of dialects into our language environment — not as subjects to be taken in schools; rather, to acknowledge and support their various functional and social roles as well as to maintain them as living languages of Singapore.

Dialects as a bridge to learning mother tongue

There are several things to consider for this proposal. First and foremost, it is perhaps time to reexamine if the learning of dialects does indeed interfere with the learning of English and Mandarin. Through forum letters and commentaries, we have read personal accounts that some knowledge of dialect may in fact help in Mandarin learning. Two reasons are often cited: One, Mandarin and the various dialects share the same written characters. Second, because all Chinese languages belong to the same language family, it is much easier for a person who is exposed to a dialect from young to pick up Mandarin, as compared to someone who speaks mostly English at home.

Students who do not speak Mandarin or a Chinese dialect at home tend to lose the environment and motivation to use Mandarin after graduation, some from as early as secondary school, as they are no longer required to take it as a subject. By introducing dialects into the social and home environment, students may develop more general interest in the Chinese language and culture, thus making the Chinese language a part of their daily life instead of just a school subject. Reintroducing dialects into households also has the benefit of enhancing intergenerational communication in our rapidly ageing society, to avoid communication breakdown between the young and the elderly.

Speak Mandarin Campaign and the Media

The language shift away from dialects can be traced back to 1979. That year saw the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which aimed to eliminate the usage of dialects in both home and social interactions as well as in the public media, thereby leading to the slow and gradual death of dialect usage in Singapore. Instead of banning dialects outright, I believe that dialects could have co-existed with Mandarin (the official language of the ethnic Chinese community), while retaining their presence in the language environment of Singapore. Instead of insisting that dialects are the culprits for subpar standards in English and Mandarin in Singapore, perhaps the Speak Mandarin Campaign could have taken a different angle of promoting Mandarin without demonising dialects.

In neighbouring Malaysia, many people speak Malay, English, Mandarin and the various Chinese dialects, which are not banned in Malaysian media. Most Malaysians seem to have a stronger grasp of multiple languages as compared to our so-called “bilingual” Singaporeans. Even this bilingualism of Singaporeans seems to be steadily declining, giving way to a strong preference for English.

Despite the decades-old ban on dialects, local movies in recent years featuring the usage of dialects like 《大世界》 (It’s a Great, Great World) have received generally positive responses. This shows not only the nostalgic bond, but also the deep sense of identity associated with the dialects. With the fading use of dialects in their daily lives, many Singaporeans feel that this intrinsic part of their identity has been lost.

The appeal of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture also contributes to much of the interest in dialects — I am sure you know of friends, young and old, who watch Hong Kong television dramas in Cantonese, Taiwanese variety shows in the native Taiwanese language, or who sing Cantonese and Hokkien songs at karaoke joints.

Furthermore, with the increase of Korean and Japanese television shows having the dual sound/language option for viewers to watch the shows undubbed on free-to-air television channels, it may seem illogical and unfair not to offer the same option for viewers of Hong Kong and Taiwanese shows, to watch these shows in their original languages, which are still the true mother tongues for many Singaporeans.

Lessons in Dialects

The interest in the revival of dialects can be further illustrated by the increasingly popular dialect courses offered by clan associations (“Learning mother tongue in class”, The Straits Times, 27 March 2011). Reasons cited include the need to communicate with older relatives and interest piqued by popular culture. There may come a time when some Chinese dialects have garnered enough interest and incentives to be offered as electives in mainstream schools, alongside existing third language courses like French, German and Japanese. Not only does this recognise both native and foreign languages as useful languages to be studied, it also embraces our heritage histories while preparing our students for a future in the globalised world.

Dialects Around Us

Another way to promote dialects as living languages is to utilise them in our linguistic landscape. For example, their presence can be enhanced in the naming of roads and MRT stations. It would be a step forward if, for example, the future MRT station at Great World City could be named its familiar dialect name “Tua Seh Kai” instead of “Great World City”, emphasising its historical roots. Many signboards at food courts are already using words like teh-o and kopi siu dai instead of “tea without milk” and “coffee with less sugar”, respectively. It is heartening to know that even foreigners are getting acquainted with these local dialect terms.

It is long overdue for Singapore to relook its stance on dialects. Previous worries that it may affect the young in their learning of English and mother tongue may not be as big an issue as believed, if the language policies are implemented carefully to ensure that dialects remain in a supportive role, and that the utmost focus on English and mother tongue remains. There are benefits that we have yet to discover or acknowledge if dialects were to be reintroduced into our linguistic landscape, and there is no harm in taking the step forward to give dialects their rightful spaces they deserve in our culture and lives.

The author is a research assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies.

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