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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Foolish to advocate the learning of dialects

Foolish to advocate the learning of dialects

From the Straits Times
March 7 2009.

I REFER to yesterday's article by Ms Jalelah Abu Baker ('One generation - that's all it takes 'for a language to die'). It mentioned a quote from Dr Ng Bee Chin, acting head of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies: '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.'

To keep a language alive, it has to be used regularly. Using one language more frequently means less time for other languages. Hence, the more languages a person learns, the greater the difficulties of retaining them at a high level of fluency.

There are linguistically gifted individuals who can handle multiple languages, but Singapore's experience over 50 years of implementing the bilingual education policy has shown that most people find it extremely difficult to cope with two languages when they are as diverse as English and Mandarin.

This is why we have discouraged the use of dialects. It interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English. Singaporeans have to master English. It is our common working language and the language which connects us with the world.

We also emphasised the learning of Mandarin, to make it the mother tongue for all Chinese Singaporeans, regardless of their dialect groups. This is the common language of the 1.3 billion people in China. To engage China, overseas Chinese and foreigners are learning Mandarin and not the dialects of the different Chinese provinces.

We have achieved progress with our bilingual education in the past few decades. Many Singaporeans are now fluent in both English and Mandarin. 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.

That was the reason the Government stopped all dialect programmes on radio and television after 1979. Not to give conflicting signals, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew also stopped making speeches in Hokkien, which he had become fluent in after frequent use since 1961.

Chee Hong Tat
Principal Private Secretary
to the Minister Mentor


This is disappointing in many ways. Dialects allow us a truer link to our hometowns back in the mainland, but perhaps this is desirable for the politicians - we get close, but not too close. Our dialects allow us a meaningful cultural root, without which there is little we can imagine about where we came from. Whether this is important to individuals is quite another story, but the rampant labeling of it as 'silly' is indeed quite silly. What is saddening is this is slowly becoming prevalent even in the mainland Chinese. 'Over-use' of mandarin has led many of the Chinese friends I've made here quite incapable of using their dialects, even though they live in areas where the dialects grew and formed over generations. Do we really need to lose our dialects? Tsk.