SINGAPORE: In the hallways of one of the science blocks, enthusiastic students like Ms Sarah Xing can be heard loudly chanting words like “Yuht, ngee, sahm” – one, two, three in Cantonese – and bursting into laughter when someone gets the tones wrong. Which is frequently.
The 21-year-old is one of 30 undergraduates from the Department of Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who signed up for a course in Cantonese. As a subject, it’s got nothing in common with their usual staple of cell biology, analytical chemistry and pharmaceutical analysis. It adds zero value to their grades.
But, these third-year students clearly think it important enough to make time in their hectic schedules for learning the Chinese dialect.
The four-week course was organised by their seniors, to better equip these future pharmacists for when they encounter older, dialect-speaking patients on the job. Said Ms Xing: “With our aging population, a high percentage of the patients will be elderly. And if I can speak their language and understand their situation, I can provide better care to them.”
She also wanted to be able to communicate better with her maternal grandmother. Like a number of elderly Singaporeans, grandma speaks Mandarin, but often lapses into her dialect when she struggles to find the Mandarin words.
BRIDGING THE GENERATIONAL RIFT
At the other end of the age spectrum, most of Ms Xing’s friends are like her – able to speak only a smattering of their family’s dialect.
In 2015, some 12 per cent of Singaporeans said they spoke mainly Chinese dialects at home. That’s down from 14.3 per cent in 2010, and 18.2 per cent in 2005, according to the General Household Survey.
But more and more, younger Singaporeans are going back to school to learn their grandparents’ tongues – in large part, to bridge that linguistic gap between the generations.
Catering to them are groups like Viriya Community Services, which started free Learn My Dialect classes in 2007 to build awareness and promote intergenerational bonding.
Response was slow initially 10 years ago. But in the past two years, their classes in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese have boomed in popularity.
Classes were once conducted every three months – these days, it’s more like three times a week, at the request of clients who include schools, community centres, groups and universities.
“We see a growing interest from those in the medical field and those doing community outreach programmes, because they deal mainly with the elderly who understand only dialect,” said Michelle Cheng, 33, Viriya’s senior programme executive.
Even when the patients do speak Mandarin, pharmacy student Ms Ang Soon Jun has noticed on home visits with voluntary service and learning initiative NUS CHAMP (Community Health Angels Mentoring Programme) how these old folks build a closer rapport with – and sometimes reveal personal details only to – volunteers who can speak their dialect.
That’s why she signed up for the course, the 21-year-old said.
WATCH: Doing it for the sake of elderly patients (3:10)
KEEPING HERITAGE ALIVE
Various clan associations that CNA Insider spoke to also reported an increase in sign-ups for dialect lessons. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK) said interest has been growing over the last three years, especially among those in the medical field, lawyers, undergraduates and property agents.
Mr Jeremiah Soh, a marketing executive with the association, said: “Most of those who sign up for these courses do so because of work.
There is a small percentage that is keen to learn the dialect to know about their culture and roots.
Once held on an ad-hoc basis, these days, four general Hokkien conversational courses – each about three months long, for a fee of S$280 – are conducted each year, with one or two specialised courses involving medical jargon.
Students ranged in age from 17 to their 40s – a demographic that grew up in the Speak Mandarin Campaign era post-1979, with little exposure to Hokkien, speaking mainly English or Mandarin at home.
The Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, the umbrella body for Teochew clans in Singapore, also noted increased enrolment in its language classes held three times a week. Most are adults under 40, and include non-Chinese and even foreigners from Europe.
The Char Yong DaBu Association, meanwhile, is working hard to bring Hakka back to life in song. The group with close to 20 members, aged from 30 to 70, has noticed more young people signing up to connect with their roots and history – some, after their grandparents died without teaching them the dialect.
The songs they belt out harken back to a time when their ancestors sang on mountain tops. Mr Li Rong De, 58, said he finds them a great tool in teaching languages. One song, for instance, goes:
“You ask where Hakka people are from? They come from the Yellow River. Where do Hakka people live? All mountains have Hakka people.”
Said Mr Li: “I feel very happy when people take the initiative to understand their own roots.”
A GRANDFATHER’S HOPE
One grandfather has taken matters into his own hands.
Mr Zhang Shi Yu peppers his conversations with his grandsons with Hokkien, even though they prefer to converse in a mix of English and Mandarin. He believes that by encouraging them to speak the dialect, he is helping to preserve his Hokkien heritage.
Said the 70-year-old who is Chinese educated: “This is our ancestors’ language… I want my grandchildren to know about Hokkien and our origins.”
WATCH: Teaching the grandkids with old-fashioned discipline (5:34)
Two of his grandsons attend the SHHK preschool which, while its curriculum is primarily in Mandarin, also teaches some dialect nursery rhymes (and not just in Hokkien but also Cantonese).
“Usually in the car, they will start singing the Hokkien songs that the school teaches. Sometimes I hum along with them and I purposely sing the wrong words to see if they notice. They’ll say, ‘you sang wrongly’, I’ll say, ‘not bad’.”
He added: “We live in Singapore where speaking dialect is not be very important. The main languages here are English and Chinese, but if you are able to learn some dialect, why not?”
“The era is different. Now, apart from the hawker centre where you will hear it occasionally, elsewhere very seldom you hear it… The young people, very few of them speak,” he lamented.
If they don’t care about their ancestors, why would they care about their dialect? My grandchildren, if I don’t teach them their dialect now, when they grow up they would not care about it at all.
But another Hokkien grandparent, Madam Mary Chan, felt quite the opposite.
Her six-year-old grandson is already struggling with Mandarin, she said, and introducing him to Hokkien would just confuse him further.
The working language in Singapore is English, and I don’t see the value of teaching him a dialect that he may not find useful when he starts working.
“I would be grateful if he can speak both Mandarin and English well,” she said.
SHHK principal Tham Kum Fong was quick to stress that most parents send their children to the preschool for a strong foundation in Mandarin and not for its dialect songs, which are “just a small part of our life skills class”.
But teacher Chiu Su Jen is glad she has the chance to pass on a cultural legacy. “These songs, I sang them when I was young. No one sings them anymore, especially in Singapore,” she said.
“So when I have this opportunity to pass a childhood memory down to the next generation, I feel I’ve found my purpose in life.”
WILL DIALECTS LOSE THEIR PLACE?
This rise of interest in dialects in Singapore has been noticed by the foreign media – including most recently The New York Times, which wrote of a revival “after decades of restrictions” on public broadcasts in dialect, for instance.
It prompted a letter of rebuttal by Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, which said the assertions of “linguistic repression” and of a “softening” of government policy were both “mistaken”. (Read the letter here.)
Experts earlier interviewed by CNA Insider, however, saw the upsides to a grassroots resurgence of interest.
Associate Professor Susan Xu was surprised to see it happening among younger Singaporeans who typically do not show a strong interest in the Mandarin mother tongue – let alone, one would expect, dialect.
“It is a good phenomenon. Dialect is rooted in our heritage and our ethnic group. When you pick up the dialect, you also pick up a connection with their elder generation,” said the head of the translation and interpretation programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
So is there hope for those who would like dialects preserved for posterity – or will dialects lose their place in Singapore as the years roll by?
“It is possible that it will be lost,” said Dr Francesco Perono Cacciafoco, lecturer in linguistics and multilingual studies at the Nanyang Technological University, who said that regional dialects were also falling out of use in his native Italy.
But there’s hope yet, if young people in Singapore are leading the charge. “You may have some social revival, like the way people in Scotland are trying to speak Gaelic so as to preserve their language,” he said.