he elderly gentleman smiled at me, gesturing to my name tag with his wine glass. “Oh, you’re a Han too, like me. You should come join the Han Clan, we have trips back to Hainan Island. You speak Hainanese?”
“No, I don’t. Actually, my dad’s family is Hainanese but he was born and raised in Shanghai.”
“Oh, so you speak Shanghainese then.”
“Erm… no, I don’t speak Shanghainese either.”
“Then what dialects do you speak? Cantonese? Hokkien?”
“Ah… actually, I can’t really speak any dialects at all.”
He smiles again, faintly this time, and nods knowingly. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but not a surprise.
When the first Chinese settlers arrived in Singapore, most of them spoke their own dialects: Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, so on and so forth. People preferred to use the dialect of their province rather than Mandarin, the “official” language. (In China, Mandarin is often known as guoyu or putonghua, translated as “language of the country” or “common tongue”.) This was what they passed on to their children, and how they communicated in their families and communities.
After Singapore’s independence, the government saw this preference for dialects as a hindrance to their bilingual education policy, which sought to have Singaporean students learn two languages at school: English and their mother tongue (depending on their ethnicity). Thus, the government launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979. In that year, the campaign slogan was, “多讲华语，少说方言” (translation: “Speak More Mandarin, Speak Less Dialects”).
This message was repeated again and again over the next 10 years, with slogans like “Mandarin’s In. Dialect’s Out.”, “Mandarin is Chinese” and “More Mandarin, Less Dialect. Make it a way of life.” and the campaign continues till today (although the focus has shifted away from discouraging dialects). The use of dialects in local media is still largely banned, and films and videos in dialects are not allowed unless they are dubbed over in Mandarin.
With each passing generation, dialects have become less and less used. I remember sitting at the dining table as a kid listening to my maternal grandmother and nanny converse in Cantonese, my mother chipping in with slightly less fluency, while I couldn’t speak any at all. (Now that I’m working in Hong Kong for two months, this memory comes back to me every time someone shouts at me in Cantonese and I only get about 10% of what they’re saying.)
Since I mostly speak English in my daily life anyway, not being able to speak any dialects hasn’t been a big problem at all. But every now and then, when I hear people conversing in dialects, there is a pang of regret.
And as it turns out, it’s not just me. Just before I began to write this piece I tweeted:
To my Singaporean friends, do you think that young Chinese Singaporeans are missing out on speaking dialects?
— Kirsten Han (@kixes) January 29, 2012
I was surprised by the response I received.
— gozgozgoz (@plusixfive) January 29, 2012
@kixes yes. A whole dimension of cultural richness is lost.
— Ivan Ng (@food_blogger) January 29, 2012
@kixes yep. I feel sorry for my friends who cannot talk to their grandparents.
— Adrianna Tan (@skinnylatte) January 29, 2012
Before I knew it there were discussions about culture, heritage and communication. It wasn’t as if we all felt that the inability to speak a dialect (whichever one it may be) is shameful – the general sense I got from the conversations were a shared sense of loss, a sort of nostalgia for something we never had. It sounds melodramatic and cliche, and yet it’s true.
And what exactly is the trade-off here? Chinese Singaporeans were meant to have given up dialects for bilingualism, a mastery of both Mandarin and English that would stand us in good stead when it comes to the global market. And yet it is widely known that young Singaporeans are also having trouble with the languages we are taught – our Mandarin is in shambles, and our English is nothing to crow about. There are times when it gets really hard to feel like we’ve struck a good deal.
The systematic stamping out of dialects in Singaporean society in favour of bilingualism may or may not have been the best move to make. I don’t think we will ever be able to reach a consensus. But as we give up the dialects that our ancestors spoke in the name of pragmatism and business, we cannot deny that we’ve inadvertently given up something more – a connection, however tenuous, to those who have come before us.
A connection that we don’t always think about, but is more precious to us than we ourselves realise.