Dying Dialects

by icedtehc

The 5 largest Mandarin dialect populations in Singapore are Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese respectively, with others such as Foochow and Shanghainese joining the mix, but which one are you? I was surprised recently that many youths today didn’t even know what dialect they were, let alone be able to speak it. I’m not sure if this is the situation for dialects of other Singapore languages, so I’ll be focusing more on the Chinese aspect of this situation.

Singapore is an extremely young country compared to the rest of the world and yet, there can be a commonly-noted language barrier between ONLY 2 generations. The case is often that the grandparent (born 1930s) is able to speak dialect, minimal mandarin and 0 English, while the youth (1980s-present) speak a whole lot of English and Mandarin. Conversations only go so far. The thing is – conversations are what bring people together.

“Although Singaporeans are still multilingual, 40 years ago, we were even more multilingual. Young children are not speaking some of these languages at all any more. All it takes is one generation for a language to die.”

– Dr Ng Bee Chin, Acting Head of Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies at Nanyang Technological University

Some say races are what set us apart, what makes us unique, but when you look deeper in, aren’t we all simply…Chinese? And with recent increases of Mainland Chinese Immigrations, what does that make us? Singaporean Chinese? Is that it?

As the Chinese idiom goes “饮水思源” – To drink water and think of it’s source, it’s all about roots. And our roots can go a long way, and an exciting way at that. Caucasians are constantly obsessed with how they’re “this percent Irish”, “this percent Swedish”, “that percent Danish”, etc. and yet, they’re all caucasians. Why can’t we do the same? After all, in a country like Singapore, where all our ancestors were immigrants, odds are, we have roots that spread across the ends of China, mixing dialects, maybe even mixing races! (considering China was once obsessed with conquering people) And of course, we can all meanwhile continue being Singaporean Chinese…

In a world where communication is everything, who’s left to communicate with the senior citizens, and once they leave us, imagine the decrease in speakers there would be in Singapore. We need to understand how significant dialects can be – I mean, come on, dialects were used to WIN ELECTIONS, and today, THEY STILL ARE. Teochew and Hokkien, for example, plays a huge role in garnering support and attention in constituencies like Hougang and Potong Pasir SMC, where the general population there is made of dialect-speaking senior citizens.

Unfortunately, the cause of this generational gap formed by dialect suppression could be blamed on campaigns in 1979, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1989 which included posters like these:

and the results couldn’t be clearer, especially from a statistical standpoint –

Yes, Chinese is important, English is important, but what’s wrong with dialect?! Fortunately, there are some cases in which, dialects may just be making a comeback!

  1. 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.”  The use of the word ‘stupid’ in Mr Chee Hong Tat’s letter offended many Singaporeans, some of whom were speakers of the said dialects. Online response was mostly negative, with Singaporeans criticising him as being “narrow-minded and short-sighted” and “insensitive” in a furore of blog posts and forum replies.
  2. In 2002, clans associations such as Hainanese Association of Singapore (Kheng Chiu Hwee Kuan) and Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan started classes to teach dialects. This was in response to an increased desire among Singaporeans to reconnect with their Chinese heritage and culture through learning dialects.
  3. In 2007, a group of 140 students from Primary 3 to 6 from Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ Primary School students learnt Hokkien and Cantonese as an effort to communicate better with the elderly. The elderly themselves taught the students the languages. The programme was organised in the hope of bridging the generational gap that was formed due to the suppression of these dialects in Singapore.
  4. And of course, the exist and endurance of Singlish despite ‘Speak Good English’ campaigns, because, let’s be honest here, there are ‘certain’ Hokkien words that most Singaporeans would know about, regardless of race, and it is through Singlish that this words are known. Sometimes, curiosity pushes them further, giving them the urge to pursue the dialect further!

“United with English, unique by Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, etc.” Why can’t we further narrow it down to “United by Mandarin, unique by Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, etc.”?

This is more than a endangerment plea. I understand that countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, etc. still as their fair share of speakers, but why not Singapore? Why can’t WE do it? The mistake of integrating cultures from a ‘modernizing generation’ is slowly ripping the dialects groups apart, and I believe it’s up to us to mend it back together. Just start by finding out your own dialect (#TeamTeochew :3),  and pick it up (pick your mothers’ side if you don’t like your fathers’ dialect…teehee)! Learn the conversational basics – it will open a new world for you 🙂

I myself am a proud Teochew speaker since young and seem to have a fascination with the dialects in this country (I hope to learn Hainanese as well!). To me, knowing about dialect is more than just knowing where different foods come from, it’s about knowing the language itself, being able to communicate in what could be considered a unique fashion that boils down to our very roots.



Lee, Edmond Eu Fah. “Profile of the Singapore Chinese Dialect Groups.” Social Statistics Section, Singapore Department of Statistics. Web.