Thursday, March 19, 2009

Searching for Singapore's soul (Part 2): A losing battle for our dialects

I am truly appalled by the recent speak Mandarin drive. It says two main things:

1. that dialects are a negative interference on the learning of English and Mandarin

2. that it is restrictive because it only confines us to our ancestral village, town, or at best the province.

And to compound the absurdity of this argument, the Straits Times published a letter in the forum by an Ong Siew Chey who said:

Chinese should forget about dialects and stick to mandarin. Language is a tool and we should use the best tool available. Cultural and other values can be dissociated from languages...we do not lose much if we discard dialects

These arguments are highly flawed.

Firstly, a person's ability to learn a language is not a zero-sum game. The government should give Singaporeans greater credit for their capacity to learn. Any doctor will tell you that we do not have a fixed number of brain cells for the learning of languages and should therefore conserve them for only the languages that matter. If anything, my learning of a second and third language helped me appreciate the different languages more.

Granted, with limited time, one may argue that we should be focusing on the languages that matter. But being able to speak a language well has less to do with the number of hours one spends STUDYING it, than with the person's opportunity to practice it and understand the cultural significance of the language.

Which brings me to my next point. How can a person say that: "Cultural and other values can be dissociated from languages"???!!! Language and Culture are intrinsically linked! Good heavens! Which planet is this person coming from?!

Chinese opera sung in Mandarin as opposed to Hokkien can NEVER be the same. There are idoms, terms and phrases used in Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka etc that you cannot fully translate into Mandarin, and which are unique to the historical development of the dialect. You lose the dialect, and you lose the legends, myths and folklores of these communities.

Language is a tool, yes! But who ever said we should only work with one tool. Different tools are designed for different functions, so why rank them as best and second-best? And what's wrong with working with more than one tool?

Lastly, to say that dialects restrict us to only our ancestral town, or province is to have a very limited understanding of the function of language. Can and should we measure the value of a language based on the number of people who speak it? Must everything be valued by a quantifiable measure?

So what if only a village of 20 people speak that dialect? If one of that 20 is my grand father, that ONE person means a lot to me. And he is a part of my history and my family, which I will lose if I don't speak that dialect.

I speak from experience because my late grandparents were from Guang Zhou (a city in China), but I never learnt to speak cantonese. And I grew up very much detached from them, and I never bothered spending time with them because - "What would we talk about when I don't even speak their language?"

Nothing can be sadder than being total strangers with your own family and even when they passed on, I didn't really feel like I had lost a close family member.

Is this the kind of young generation the government really wants to nurture?

Dialects, like language, are a means of communication, and along with communication, peoples' ability to form relationships, identify with each other, and express feelings to each other. You take that away, and you break more than just the language, but the social bonds, sense of community and one's roots.

Did the government not once advocate Singaporean's living overseas to value one's roots and come back to Singapore instead of deserting? We were labeled "stayers" or "quitters".

Do our roots only stop at 1979 when the Speak Mandarin campaign was launched in Singapore?


1 comment:

rem said...

when lah this relief worker gonna post new things? in my list of bloggers u are last cos u havent done nothing for long weeks lah sis.
wot hapen?