Thursday, December 07, 2006

Reconstructing the tower of Babel

Some people are now suggesting that Singapore should relax its rules on the use of Chinese dialects in the officially support and sanctioned broadcast media - specifically television programmes produced or carried by Mediacorp. There is a sense of loss of heritage and language when our children do not know how to speak Cantonese or Teochew or some other Chinese dialects. When our children's generation replaces us, dialects will all be forgotten as everyone will only know how to speak Mandarin only, the dialect of the nobility in the north of China.

I agree. My son cannot speak Cantonese although both my wife and I are Cantonese and we converse both in Cantonese and English (though strangely, never in Mandarin, although we are just as competent, if not more so, in this dialect). Whenever we converse in Cantonese within earshot of our son, he would insist that we NOT speak to each other except in either Mandarin or English - the only languages he knows. His concern is that he cannot follow what we were saying to each other. I always point out to him that he is born Cantonese and he should, at the very least, understand spoken Cantonese, if not speak it as well.

Therein lies the irony of a successful Speak Mandarin campaign, as some have pointed out. Our children will soon lose their dialectal heritage by their inability to converse in the language of their fathers - people who may have migrated to Singapore from all parts of China, but predominantly from the south of China. What's so important about China you ask? Well, many Singaporeans have moved there to take up jobs in recent years. I have a friend who now works in Shenzhen. He has a son who is schooling in Singapore, learning Mandarin. But of course, not everyone in Shenzhen, or even Hong Kong for that matter, speak Cantonese. In fact, I have noticed that many Hong Kongers are taking the effort to learn Mandarin. However, Cantonese still predominates.

The point is, it is easier to live and work in these places if one knows the local dialect. As China grows in importance as an economic force, it will only make sense that Singaporeans learn Cantonese as much as Hong Kongers are learning Mandarin. Who do you think will be in an advantageous position ultimately? The one who know a single dialect or the one who knows two?

So what we should do is a no brainer, actually. I have decided to speak more Cantonese when my son is around us because I really want him to acquire the language. I only wish that Mediacorp/MDA will stop wasting money dubbing those programmes from Cantonese into Mandarin for our consumption. They can export the dubbed version to China or other lands. As for reversing the policy on speaking Mandarin, well, we have already slain one sacred cow, slaying another wouldn't be that hard now, would it?

Image source:

1 comment :

Lam Chun See said...

I fully agree with your views. I have always objected to the destruction of dialects. Our generation got a healthy dose of Chinese family values and idioms from watching those Cantonese movies of old.

I find it really stupid when they 'force' some of the old Hong Kong artistes to speak broken mandarin on our tv shows.

Coincidentally, my wife and I also Cantonese and my kids also can't speak Cantonese. But surprisingly, they have taken an interest of late, and often ask the meaning Cantonese words.