What Are You Saying? 你讲什么? Ler Kong Si Mi?

When Minster for Education Heng Swee Keat said that school children will be burdened by dialects, I was incensed, enraged even, because what he said cannot be further from the truth. It is absolute bullshit. Firstly, Mr. Heng has misunderstood how children learn languages. Secondly, and indirectly, the stubborn insistence on keeping the ban on dialect media productions hints at a lingering lack of confidence in the almost four-decades-old bilingual policy. Third, saying that dialects clash with the bilingual policy reeks of complete contempt and disrespect for dialects.

Before I begin, I will say it openly that the issue of dialects is something that is very dear to my heart. That is why I am writing this piece to say what I feel and think about this emotive issue. Make no doubt about it – the issue of dialects is an emotional one. Also, I am very cognisant that I am writing a piece that concerns the Chinese community in Singapore. I ask your forgiveness for not focusing on a more wholesome picture.

Teochew Opera

Teochew Opera

I believe I can speak for many of us when I say that dialects are the emotional bonds linking many younger Singaporeans with their grandparents, and this is why these bonds are so precious and worth cherishing. It is precisely the same reason why we bemoan its slow and painful death as a part of Singapore’s colourful “folk culture” (if I may be so bold to use the phrase without getting lynched by sociologists). Why else would older Singaporeans occasionally mention that the use of dialects will pass on into history when younger Singaporeans don’t speak it, much less grow up in a family environment that speaks it from time to time?

Misunderstanding How Children Learn Languages

Children have a great propensity to learn languages before they turn 10 years old because their brains are like sponges – highly absorbent and malleable. They learn very quickly and they seldom forget. Furthermore, academics have pointed out that humans have great potential for learning languages, and that a linguistic environment will support language learning over time.

In my 23 years of life, never have I once felt that dialects were a burden. No. Never.  I grew up with my doting maternal grandparents who spoke Teochew. Naturally, my first language was Teochew, not English. I then mastered English and Chinese as I grew up, with a strong preference for the former which later became my dominant language. I struggled with Chinese, but with some effort, it is decent now. Along the way, I picked up Hokkien, which was easy because of its homophonic intonations. I spoke more Hokkien while in NS (bloody useful in establishing rapport with people). Over the book-out weekends, I picked up Cantonese while watching TVB dramas from Hong Kong.

In my first three semesters in university, I learnt German. Now, I’m dabbling with Bahasa Melayu. The point is simple, and I borrow from The Linguist:

“In fact it is motivation and attitude, not age, that determines our ability to learn languages. Most, if not all, polyglots, learn most of their languages as adults. Adults are often more inhibited or self-conscious, and have less opportunity, or are less willing, to socialize with people of another language group, whereas children just blend in to their new environment.The only thing that matters is that we can learn at any age. If we are 50 there is no point in wondering if we were able to learn better when we were 5. If you can motivate a child to learn a language when young, great. Otherwise it is never too late to start.”

So, the case is clear as to whether children can learn dialects or not. From the above, it does not matter when children learn dialects. Heck, you can learn it even beyond the optimum age and still grasp it so long as you have the verve for it. What cannot be tolerated is MOE’s dogmatic insistence that it is the final pedagogical authority on language learning. As a avid lover of languages, I cannot agree. Many young families with school-going children are mostly mono-lingual or bilingual (if they’re lucky). As such, the family environment already supports the mastery of two languages. Our celebrated public school systems provide yet another conducive environment for entrenching the use of two languages. As it is, there is already very little room for dialect. This brings me to my next point: why the fear about dialects?

Still ban dialects? Come on, 40 years with the Bilingual Policy already

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curriculum. I don’t think there’s a need to. What I am saying is this, and I borrow a phrase from my lecturer, there is no need to get your panties tied into a knot whenever dialects are mentioned. By all means, continue with the bilingual policy. Singaporeans are sensible enough to see its merits, what with China and all the rest of it. But since the inception of the bilingual policy in 1972, we have come a long way.

I can understand if it was given as a rationale that we had to unify language learning back then for education’s sake. Lee Kuan Yew went as far as to ban dialect media. All that took place 40 years ago.

Those who know me would know that I have the deepest respect and admiration for our founding prime minister and all that he has done. However, when it comes to dialects, I would like to humbly disagree.

We are now in 2013 and are facing a loss of our heritage. Dialects are receding into memory, and so are the dialect operas. It’s a big problem because those are our real roots, not merely being Han Chinese. We are the descendants of dialect speaking immigrants. Our forebears spoke dialects and not Mandarin. So, my suggestion to the government is this: if it is genuinely concerned about rekindling in our hearts the connection with our ancestry, then let it be bold and lift the ban on dialect media before it becomes too late. Did the government not challenge its own paradigms last week with the announcement for free transport which this blog praised? It can be done.

After all, what has the government got to lose? As mentioned in the introduction, a decision to not lift the ban would hint at its insecurity towards the bilingual policy – that the ban must still be in place to support the learning of two languages because dialects are still an intrusion and that families do not have the requisite environment for learning, speaking, and mastering two languages. If MOE is still feeling insecure after 40 years, that’s just quite sad. Nothing else, just sad that MOE is not confident enough of its own policy.

No Clash Between Dialects and Bilingual Policy

The learning of dialects is not antagonistic to the bilingual policy. The two can coexist and it is not a zero-sum game – it has never been and it should not be. In fact, other than sharing the Chinese script, the two are worlds apart.

Dialects, in their spoken and written form, differ greatly from the Chinese script. The syntax and words are totally different for the same expression. Take “woman” for example. In Chinese, we know it to be 女人. It’s the same for Cantonese (loei yan). But for Teochew and Hokkien, it’s different – 查某 (zha bou/zha bor respectively). The differences are clear. Not only will learners see that the words are different, the sounds are different. Well, I think there’s more to learn. Dialects make the language colourful. And Chinese dialects come from the main language, Mandarin. This makes them related, not separate from one another.

Final Thoughts?

I reiterate my displeasure at Minister Heng’s unfortunate misunderstanding of language learning and deplore the poor attitude taken to dialects. It’s hurtful, to say the least. I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curricula but for the ban on dialect media to be lifted so that inter-cultural learning can be facilitated. There is nothing to be ashamed about dialects. It is about high time the ban got lifted because 40 years is more than enough for MOE to entrench the bilingual policy and have confidence in its own policy.


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