Who says our kids can’t learn dialects and multi-languages at the same time?

by Jen

Are our kids incapable of learning dialects and Mandarin at the same time? Our government thinks so. Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat said recently at a dialogue session that learning “dialects will burden school kids more” which makes it clear that the authorities will not be encouraging our kids to learn dialects any time soon. His rationale for this is because he wants to ensure that our Singapore children have a sound grasp of English and the mother-tongue language. He also said it is best for the kids to learn dialects later on in life if they wish.

The government’s stand on dialects is built on fallacies that must be demolished.  Firstly, they are assuming that Singaporeans are unable to handle anything more than two languages competently. This is a fallacy. I have witnessed numerous older generations of Singaporeans, who grew up in the early 1900′s through to the 50s, 60′s and 70′s, who are able to speak not one but a few dialects, some Malay and reasonably good English and Mandarin.  My entire family including my elderly aunts and uncles are multi-lingual. Personally, I can speak three dialects and am fluent in English and Mandarin.

So unless Singaporeans have grown more stupid over the years, I do not see why the kids of today can’t learn dialects too. In fact, ain’t the kids getting smarter through the years with better education, nutrition and early learning opportunities?  And isn’t our education system better and more advanced now in its pedagogy and teaching of languages?

Back in the late 1970s, the government started doing away with dialects because there was a significant number of Singaporeans who did not master Mandarin and they promptly blamed this on the use of dialects. Henceforth, dialects were banned from TV and radio programmes and launched the Speak Mandarin campaign. This effectively killed the interest of Chinese youths in learning and the interest of parents in teaching dialects as all focused on Mandarin.  What I want to know is, why didn’t the government blame it on poor teaching methods instead of on dialects? Was there any factual proof to show that it was solely the direct result of speaking dialects that caused the poor mastery of Mandarin? If there wasn’t, shouldn’t they substantiate their stance against kids learning dialects? We are in 2013 now not 1970s.

Mr Heng also said: “I don’t think you want a system where we get our kids to start learning in an even more complicated language environment. As it is, our language environment is already very complex.”  This statement is based on the fallacy that kids cannot handle too many languages, or in our case more than two – English and Mother tongue.  I am surprised that an education minister can say this as it is widely documented that kids, from the time they are babies, have the innate ability to pick up sounds, verbal codes and multiple languages. A study done in 2012 by an NUS prof showed that infants as young as 18-30 months were able to coordinate different sets of rules in learning languages. Childhood is the actually the best time for kids to pick up languages and dialects naturally. Many studies have also demonstrated the learning of multiple languages benefits not only a student’s linguistic abilities but also their cognitive and creative abilities as well.

And let’s get this right, it is the entire education system here that has become complicated and not the learning of languages. Overhaul the education system to make it less stressful for kids and parents yes but do not drag dialects into the picture. Dialects are not taught at schools but taught at home. I picked up dialects from speaking with my family and friends and from watching dialect programmes.

Mr Heng also made a remark that in Shanghai they are also facing a loss of in the use of their dialect to try and defend his stance. True, while dialects are being used less frequently in China thanks to the more pervasive use of Mandarin, dialects are still thriving there as the people take great pride in speaking them. This is unlike Singapore where dialects have been denigrated as a hindrance (if not downright useless) by our government. Here, dialects are in danger of being wiped out in another generation if our country’s leaders steadfastly refuse to do anything to reverse the situation. Is this what they really want?

In Europe, many people there can speak multi-languages too. The Europeans are known for their ability to speak various languages, be it German, Spanish, French, etc. in addition to English. So why can’t Singaporeans be encouraged to be similarly enabled?

I love the use of dialects for the colour, richness and diversity and for the intimacy in bonding I get when I use it with my family, friends, at the kopi-tiam, with the elderly, with the aunties and uncles. I love the extra warm treatment and that invisible connection I feel when I speak Cantonese to people in Hong Kong and when I speak Hokkien in Taiwan. Dialects have deep roots for the Chinese.  It is a cultural heritage and an indelible part of our history that should be preserved.

Ironically, few of the young know that dialects are, historically, our original mother tongue (though our ministers and anglicised LKY may disagree).  It is also interesting to note that Mandarin is based on the phonological system of dialects in and around Beijing and many words and expressions are derived from various dialects in other districts. As a Chinese research author wrote in a paper supporting dialects: “Without dialects, Mandarin would no longer exist and can never be developed”.

Recently, I was encouraged when I read a commentary by an NTU student Jeraldine Phneah who lamented the loss of dialects. She said it was necessary to learn it to build better ties between the youths and the elderly including with grandparents who speak dialects. It will also help in a society with a fast aging population to prevent the elderly from feeling isolated. Jeraldine also started an online petition to ask the government to consider allowing dialects on local broadcast stations. Do sign it if you support this cause http://www.thepetitionsite.com/312/814/814/support-the-reintroduction-of-dialects-on-local-tvradio-programs/

On the point about isolation of the elderly, let me share a personal anecdote. At a recent family dinner, the entire conversation among four generations was conducted in English as my nieces and nephews could not speak any dialect. My mum and granduncle sat quietly in a corner trying not to look forlorn. It was obvious that they felt left out as they would occasionally ask timidly in dialect:”What did they say?”. The disconnect between the young and older dialect speaking generations is obvious. We are greeted by blank faces even when we use common dialect words in jokes. And I have heard youths mispronouncing “chope” as chop!

As our government has declared that they are willing to listen to Singaporeans’ views in this  less dictatorial era, I truly hope that they will hear us well on this matter of dialects. Dialects are an important part of our roots and a big part of our Singapore history from the time of the early migrants from Asia centuries ago. Mai hum (no cockles) and kopi siew dai are still part of our daily lingo here when we order food and drinks. Many dialect words have evolved to become part of our Singlish. “I chope this place” is our quintessential way of saying we reserve something be it a table or a seat for example. There is so much value and fun in using dialects, for those of us who know it.

The need to do something proactive to protect and promote the learning of dialects is made all the more compelling by the incessant influx of foreigners and new immigrants who will bring with them their own languages and which will further dilute the use of dialects.

In our nation’s search for our Singapore identity, I urge the government to have a serious rethink on dialects even as they continue to promote the mastery of English and Mandarin. Please do not eliminate our dialect roots at the expense of pursuing an economic goal but help us to preserve our cultural heritage. Surely, a capable government can think of creative ways to help Singaporeans master key languages and yet nurture the speaking of dialects? One doesn’t have to thrive at the demise of another.  It would be a sad and tragic day if dialects were to disappear from Singapore. Kee Chiu if you agree.


This article first appeared on Jentrified Citizen. TOC would like to thank Jen for allowing us to reproduce her article here.