It will hurt not to speak dialects.

I was touched by this article written by The Independent Singapore titled “It Won’t Hurt To Speak Dialect”.

Many Singaporeans would know roughly what the article is about, without having to read it, just by reading the title.

The term “dialect” cannot be more misunderstood by the people of Singaporeans who are not informed about the proper definitions of what a “dialect” is and the differences between what constitutes a “language” and a “dialect”.

There are many, many, many arguments opposing and supporting the presence of dialects in the linguistic environment that people want to raise their children (and grandchildren) in.

To me, there are many good reasons for my support of the continued use and presence for Hokkien in my daily life and for me to call for other people to support the use and presence of Hokkien in the younger generation, some of which include the ability to converse with the elderly, the ability to understand conversations that go on during family gatherings when my relatives switch to speaking Hokkien, the ability to understand the Taiwanese words that get sprinkled in Taiwanese variety shows.

I’m not only referring to the Chinese dialects. Mandarin and other ‘mother tongues’ of Singaporeans have been under the attack of the increasing trend of parents who choose to speak primarily English to their children. Let’s leave out the fact that most of them are speaking the non-standard variety of English (aka Singlish) but have the illusion that they are teaching their children good standard English.

The most important reason I have for wanting parents to speak their real mother tongue (i.e. the language their own parents spoke to them in when they were growing up) is this: I don’t wish for the younger generation (my children or nieces and nephews) to end up being only able to have limited conversations with their grandparents (i.e. my parents, who are most conversant in Hokkien), that is, conversations that don’t go past, “Have you eaten?” and “What do you want to eat?”. This is the kind of conversations some of my peers have with their grandparents now and it is sad. There is no one to fault specifically, because it is a culmination of many factors that include a government that didn’t have much options but to prioritise economic concerns over sociolinguistic impact, uninformed and misinformed parents with no access to proper knowledge to find out if learning dialects really impedes a child’s ability to learn other languages (it does not), and recycled misinformed brainwashing.

The thing is, now, the parents of today come from a generation who has had access to proper formal education and continues to have the ability to access information to educate themselves further. They now have the ability to voice out worries in forums and be heard by many others who may share the same concern.

To me, it is just a very wrong thing if my niece grows up to be a non-Hokkien-understanding or not-fluent-in-Mandarin gantang if my mother is the one who has spent a lot of time and effort being her main caretaker and is the person who raised her father (my brother). It is just very wrong if my mother has to cobble together broken English sentences just to try and communicate with her grandchild.

Do you not see?

It will be a “Have you eaten?” limited grandparent-grandchild relationship all over again.