IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Young people speak up for dialects

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 20, 2013

More than 30 years after their use was discouraged due to the Speak Mandarin campaign, dialects seem to be making a quiet comeback among an unlikely group - the young.

More young Chinese Singaporeans now see dialects as an important part of their heritage, and are taking steps to make sure they will not be lost.

Business undergraduate Jasmine Tan began uploading basic Teochew tutorial videos on YouTube last year. Her channel, Teochew Gaginang (which means "our own people" in the dialect), currently has 214 subscribers.

"It's a way of reaching out to people," said Ms Tan, 19. "It's about cultural preservation but it's also to show people that dialects are not something uncool."

The self-professed "cultural zealot" said that she started her tutorials after being inspired by another YouTube user who uploads tutorials of Native American languages in an effort to protect them from extinction.

"You could call me sentimental," said Ms Tan. "But if you lose your dialect, you lose your culture."

Others, like students Jeraldine Phneah and Mah Poh Ee, have even petitioned the authorities to bring dialects back on air.

Ms Phneah, 22, has lived with her Hokkien-speaking grandparents since she was young.

"When I listen to people speak in Hokkien, I feel a sense of closeness and warmth," she said.

Ms Mah, who communicates with her family mostly in Cantonese but also speaks Hokkien and a smattering of Hakka, agreed.

"I use the language to bond with my closest kin. If grandchildren can't communicate with their grandparents, that's a very sad thing," the 18-year-old said.

There are also efforts to promote the use of dialects as a tool to communicate with those in the broader community.

The National University of Singapore's Students' Community Service Club, for example, is experimenting with dialect tutorial videos to equip volunteers in their interactions with the elderly.

The club used to hold two to three dialect workshops each academic year. However, it decided to switch to videos this year to increase outreach.

"We wanted our volunteers to have a more meaningful interaction with the elderly," said Ms Kristabelle Tan, 21, the club's president. "Some are afraid to volunteer if they have no dialect skills."

Ms Annie Lee, 24, who works with the Social Service Institute, has found that speaking "very fluent" Hokkien has made her job as a community relations officer easier.

She recalled how she used to have difficulty conveying her thoughts to her Hokkien-speaking parents as a teenager.

"I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn't verbalise it properly," she said. That was when she made a conscious effort to brush up on her Hokkien, and she now considers herself to be "very fluent" in the dialect.

Ms Lee is now trying to pick up Cantonese, and has bought a Cantonese copy of social worker Koh Kuan Eng's dialect picture book.

She has even purchased the Teochew and Hokkien versions of the book for her 20-month-old nephew. "Personally, I want to let dialects be passed on," she said. "I like the whole idea of continuing the legacy."

linettel@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 20, 2013

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