Reintroduce dialects back into Singapore

By: Jeraldine Phneah

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For years, English and Mother Tongue ruled the media, while dialects were kept to private conversations at home with one’s elderly grandparents and neighbours.

Back in 1978, The Goh Report, an evaluation of Singapore’s education system by Dr. Goh Keng Swee, showed that less than 40% of the student population managed to attain the minimum level of competency in two languages. The government attributed the poor mastery of Mandarin among the Singaporean Chinese to the home use of non-Mandarin Chinese languages, better known as ‘dialects’ in Singapore (principally Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka).

As such, they began to ban dialects from use on media programmes, and the “Speak Mandarin” campaign was started to encourage Singaporean-Chinese to speak a common second language: Mandarin, instead of dialects.

Additionally, most pragmatic parents today will not bother passing the knowledge of dialects to young Singaporeans as they would rather focus on the mastery of English and Mandarin because these subjects are tested for national examinations.

This resulted in many young Singaporeans in my generation are unable to speak dialects.

A commonly cited reason for bringing dialects back to the Singaporean media is ‘cultural preservation’, to ensure that dialects do not die out.  However there are other stronger reasons why we should bring dialects back into our Singapore society.

First of all, the idea that advocating the mastery of dialects interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English is no longer valid.

Referring to the progress of Singapore’s bilingual education policy over the decades, Mr Chee Hong Tat also commented that “it would be stupid for any Singapore agency or NTU to advocate the learning of dialects, which must be at the expense of English and Mandarin.

However, science has proven that young children are remarkably good at learning multiple languages simultaneously. According to Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal children can develop native-sounding accents in each tongue. And in adulthood, all reinforced languages hold their own in the brain without interfering with the others. As such, I believe if dialects were taught to children when they were young like English and Chinese, they will be able to excel in it.

I was a Singapore representative for a conference for young global ethnic Chinese leaders in China last year and I was very impressed to see how youths from other country, especially Hong Kong and Malaysia, were so fluent in not just English and Chinese but also in their dialects. In particular, Malaysian Chinese could speak not just Bahasa Melayu, English, Chinese but also one or even two dialects. If these youths can master multiple native languages, I believe it shouldn’t be a problem for Singaporeans too.

Secondly, reintroducing dialects ensure that senior citizens in Singapore, many of whom  speak mainly dialects and are illiterate, are not isolated from society.

Some political leaders have a tendency to dismiss the old as not contributing to our society but they have yet to question the policies that inhibit them from doing so. In the first place, are the elderly even able to learn new skills if nothing is taught in the language they are most familiar with? Will they also be able to understand happenings in our society if they are only broadcasted in mandarin?

Furthermore,  many of them have difficulty walking due to old age. As a result, one of their main forms of entertainment and way to stay in touch with the world happenings is television and news.

My grandmother is one example. She used to go to the market frequently to chat with her friends but due to leg aches, she can now only go 1-2 times per week. She passes her time watching television and I always hoped that we could have some Hokkien entertainment so that she will be able to enjoy it more.

I also believe that understanding news can provide her with the much needed intellectual stimulation that she needs. Intellectual stimulation is good for old people because it helps to keep their brain active. By 2030, the number of dementia patients is expected to top 80,000, up from 28,000 today. This can be greatly reduced if we allow our elderly residents to have greater social and intellectual stimulation.

Very importantly, the lack of understanding of dialects may also affect family ties. There exists a language barrier between the younger generation and their grand parents today. Many of my peers have trouble communicating and forging bonds with their grandparents because they are unable to speak dialects.

There have been several grandparents-and-grandchildren bonding projects held in Singapore but their effects are greatly limited if both parties are not well-versed in the language they communicate in.

Having young people to be fluent in dialects will help them get along better with their grandparents, strengthening family bonds.

Finally, with the rise of China and it’s respective provinces, I believe learning dialects will help us in our relations with our Chinese counterparts abroad.

Some measures could be taken to introduce dialects back into our community. It can be included as a form of elective in primary school and secondary school, organizing dialect courses for Grassroot leaders, allowing dialects on local television and radio programs (and include English or Mandarin subtitles).

I hope that the Singapore government can seriously consider introducing dialects back to our society due to the numerous benefits it brings