SINGAPORE: A Singaporean Redditor recently sparked a lively discussion online by asking the local online community how they felt about the decline of Chinese dialects in the city-state.

“My mother is Singaporean and Hokkien, and my grandmother only really spoke it,” the Redditor shared. “I find it sad that Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, and Cantonese have declined due to promoting Mandarin.”

“I get the practical reasons, but they’re the mother tongues of most local Chinese Singaporeans.”

Many Singaporeans expressed the same sentiment in the discussion thread and were deeply upset that the dialects had been brushed aside in favour of Mandarin and English. 

Some even said this had caused rifts between different generations in their family, as the grandparents, who are proficient in said dialects, couldn’t communicate well with their grandchildren, who could only speak Mandarin or English.

As a result, this linguistic barrier has led to strained relationships and a sense of disconnect within families.

One Singaporean said, “Very sad, honestly. I wish my grandparents spoke to me in dialect more because now I can barely communicate with them. 

They tried so hard to speak English to me because they thought that was what was best for me, but I wish so badly I could tell my popo everything about my day. But I’m left here with Mandarin, which is also not my strong suit.”

Another expressed, “When a 3 generation family gathers together for CNY or family lunch/dinner, the grandparents and grandchildren can’t even communicate and grow their relationship with each other.”

The loss of culture and identity

Apart from how it affects personal connections, some Singaporeans also pointed out that the decline of dialect usage has led to “a loss of culture and identity.”

According to them, language is more than just a means of communication. Language also contains information about a people’s history, culture, and traditions.

One individual expressed, “Loss of identity, especially an identifying marker among Chinese Singaporeans. It comes with the loss of an organic environment that would have let Mandarin flourish.

It’s very much the reason for the Mandarin standard declining so badly.”

One Singaporean even said, “It was akin to cultural genocide.”

Others criticized the Speak Mandarin campaign, stating that while its intentions had merit, there was practically no need to ‘stamp out’ dialects in the process. 

However, some countered and said that the campaign was ‘necessary’ since Singapore was split into different enclaves of dialect groups. They said having a common language was crucial to creating a more cohesive society.

One Singaporean added, “Honestly, the loss of dialect is going to happen anyway. Even for Mandarin, how many young people can speak Mandarin well? 

Competency in Mandarin among the Millennials is pretty bad already, and it’s even worse as you go down each generation. What chance do dialects have?”

Chinese Dialects in Singapore

According to the Census of Population Report released by the Department of Statistics Singapore, the number of Singaporeans who speak Chinese dialects has decreased over time, from 14.3% in 2010 to only 8.7% in 2020.

During this time, Mandarin usage has also decreased, from 35.6% in 2010 to 29.9% by 2020. Meanwhile, the English language jumped from 32.3% to 48.3%. 

Channel News Asia also reported in 2022 that Teochew, Hokkien, and Cantonese are the most commonly spoken Chinese dialects.

Half of those who use dialects at home speak Hokkien, a quarter use Cantonese, and around one-fifth speak Teochew.

What caused the decline of Chinese dialects?

According to Tan Ying Ying, an associate professor of linguistics and multilingual studies at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the 1979 launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign was an important factor in the drop in dialect use.

The campaign was launched to make Mandarin the common language of Chinese Singaporeans who spoke various dialects at the time. 

Read also: Employer shocked at Singaporean jobseeker for not able to speak Mandarin; starts insulting the candidate

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