Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Great Dialect Debate

I spoke Cantonese my whole life in my family. but I discovered that I was tongue tied when I was in Guangzhou (or Kwong Chow in cantonese) last year visiting our relatives with my parents. their vocabulary and phrasing was so much richer. It was only about the third day that I was able to speak with my uncles and aunties much more effectively. Robina fared little better since she is Hokkien. but she is married into the family, so there was no expectations on her. Initially, she could just smile and sit there, no need to make small talk. but later on she could chat with our Grand Aunt in her Hokkien-accented Cantonese which nonetheless could impress my relatives.

I then realised that my Cantonese ability was probably adulterated by learning English and Mandarin despite the years of supplementary revision from watching HK TV serials :-). I also realised that my grandmother was probably using her kampong Cantonese dialect. She was from a village even more ulu than my supposed ancestral village Hua County (Fa Yun 花县); it's now called Huadu District (花都) very near to Guangzhou Baiyun Airport. my relatives told us that my grandmother's accent was different. yes, native speakers could tell the differences between Guangzhou Cantonese and those from surrounding villages in the boondocks...

However, I could connect much better my younger Guangzhou cousins since they have our same problem of being educated a foreign language: Mandarin. when all else fails, Robina and I could speak Mandarin to them!

everywhere I go in China, Singaporeans are praised (whether sincerely or not I'm not sure) about our language abilities, able to speak English, Mandarin and regional dialects like Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka. It seems to me that we are losing one of our greatest assets in engaging China but severing our dialect origins and inherent language skills. learning or absorbing your own dialect in the laps of your grandfather or grandmother, is very much different from learning English or Mandarin in school. it's as much part of our culture and heritage as being Singaporean.

after a while in China, most Singaporeans will realise that even the Chinese don speak Mandarin in the official crisp CCTV accent (much like BBC English), at least not everyone. On the streets, you can hear a hodge podge of accents and dialects like Sichuan, Hunan, Anhui etc. some like Shanghaiese or Suzhou dialects sound like French to me? China is so big that every province and region have their own dialects and accents. for crying out loud, even the Brits have the own London, Scottish and Northeast accents...

IMHO, there's not much point in debating the merits of languages and dialects, especially when we in Singapore merely use languages as a mercenary economic tool. I can still remember every father, mother son in the 80s flocking to learn Japanese, but where are they now? if Eskimos are the next economic power, then we would probably be learning the language next. I don think anyone would serious advocate dialects to be taught in schools, but most responders were probably arguing for a rightful place for dialects as part of our heritage and culture.

Alvin's spiel

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