Monday, April 21, 2008

Dialects spark new bonding

Article in TODAY "Dialects spark new bonding" (21 Apr 2008) highlighted the debate regarding teaching dialect versus mandarin chinese in schools. Personally, I would have greatly appreciated the opportunity to learn dialect in school! I actually had to go all the way downtown, pay a school fee to learn Teochew last year! Even still, it was only once a week. Now I learnt that there are lessons for Hokkien too.

For people like me who are from mixed dialect families, and not having constant exposure to any one dialect, lessons are perfect. It really helps me become closer to my family, my heritage and my culture. I actually have to practice Teochew with my Teochew PhD colleagues from China. We spent the days exploring how the dialect has evolved and comparing notes between Hokkien and Teochew. I never realized how much the dialect groups in Singapore has truly integrated until I talk to them and find out the isolation amongst the different areas in China, even within a dialect group itself.

I lament the fact that I do not know my dialects better so I can better communicate with my grandparents' generation. When I went with Jen Lee to interview Mr Tan Hai Liang, I felt frustrated that I could understand but could not communicate my thoughts and questions with him. So frustrating! What more, with each passing day, these elderly treasures trove of knowledge and information is slipping away from us. Without the right communication tool, how can we possibly connect with them?

I wish more Singaporeans would learn dialects and stay in touch with their heritage. We have such a full and interesting history and heritage that really gives a boost to our identity. Likewise, for any other ethnic group, getting to know our roots and dialects of our people (and mind you, not only Chinese have dialects!) would really spark new bonding.

Dialects spark new bonding
By Lin Yanqin, TODAY
21 April 2008

For years, English and officially-termed "Mother Tongues" ruled the classrooms, while dialects — such as Hokkien or Hakka — languished at home, in private conversations, perhaps used occasionally when communicating with one's elderly grandparents and neighbours.

Such was the result of Singapore's decades-old policy of bilingualism — launched in 1966 — where dialects were banned from use on radio and television programmes, and the "Speak Mandarin" campaign was born to create a new generation of Singaporean-Chinese who speak a common second language: Mandarin.

But with dialects in danger of becoming a lost art and a younger generation unable to communicate with their grandparents, it looks like the time has come to break the long-time taboo against dialects and start introducing it in schools.

In fact, dialects are no longer being kept away from schools when once upon a time, it was felt that they impeded the learning of Mandarin — and are showing up in the form of enrichment modules and electives.

It was Member of Parliament (MP) Baey Yam Keng who floated the idea of teaching dialects as a third language during the Budget debates in March.

Schools, he said then, could play a bigger role in educating the youth about cultures he feared would someday "become an artefact in a museum".

Yesterday, he told Today: "I just think it's a waste if we don't make some effort to preserve dialects. They are a big part of Chinese culture, so to understand our own culture and roots and to promote it to other racial groups, you have to bring in dialects."

According to the Chinese Learning Lab chief executive Chua Chee Lay, who is writing a book on the impact of Singapore's language policy, dialects were "a big problem" for the Government in the '50s and '60s.

"There was no common language, so communication was a problem. And there were also gangs — people were divided because of language ideology," said Dr Chua.

To "clean up the mess", the "Speak Mandarin" campaign was introduced in 1979. "You can say it has been successful, because dialects are a dying language in Singapore," he said. "But with the creation of a common language, dialects are no longer a threat."

Agreeing, Mr Baey said: "A lot of youths nowadays might not even know what dialect groups they are from. I don't see a danger of baggage from the past reappearing."

Some schools have started introducing aspects of traditional Chinese culture, including dialects, as electives and enrichment modules for their students.

Such modules could be one-off, special activities for students, or yearly modules conducted over a week.

At SAP school Dunman High, third-year students take a module called "Pop Song Culture", where students are introduced to dialect pop songs in the 70s and 80s to learn about pop culture in different dialect groups. They also take an elective to the different flavours and food cultures from various dialect groups.

Even so, vice-principal Low Joo Hong was cautious about departing from the long-time emphasis on bilingualism. "I think it is a sensitive issue, because on one hand you want students to keep their roots, but you don't want to overplay dialects because in our history, it has become an issue when people become over-assertive about their own identity," he said.

And even as some argue that there is value in introducing dialects in schools as an enrichment activity, others question the value of doing so and whether it will interfere with learning Mandarin.

"Culturally, I see its importance, but in the overall scheme of things, is it useful," asked MP Chan Soo Sen. "I would leave it the student – if a student wants to take, then he should not be denied the opportunity," he added.

Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan secretary Baey Teng Mong, lamenting the low level of interest in dialects, said: "People see no economic value in it."

The Education Ministry's official line reiterates: "Mandarin is the unifying spoken language for Singaporean Chinese".

But Nanyang Girls' High School's (NYGH) dean of pupil development Teo Yong Hong had this take. "I personally see no conflict in teaching dialects and Chinese; it could even enliven their interest in Mandarin," she said, adding that students might find dialects useful when doing community service, as many elderly people have problems understanding Mandarin.

In that aspect, dialects would bond rather than divide, said Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan's Tan Kian Choo, chairman of the association's education committee.

"It helps the younger generation and the educated communicate with the older generation and the less educated. Among peers, it is a natural bond," he said. - TODAY/ra

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