A LETTER published recently in the press suggested that it was foolish to advocate the learning of dialects in Singapore.
The writer's reasoning was that the use of dialects interferes with the learning of Mandarin and English. I beg to differ for a number of reasons: The use of dialects can add depth to one's understanding of Mandarin.
Just as reading early modern English in Shakespeare gives an insight into the use and meanings of words in contemporary English, so, too, can an understanding of dialects give an insight into contemporary Mandarin. Today's dialect could become tomorrow's mother tongue and vice versa. Witness the promotion of Mandarin, a dialect of the Beijing people, to its status as the national language of China.
The official language of the Tang Dynasty was Hokkien. Reading Tang poetry aloud in Hokkien apparently gives a different flavour to the written words.
To say that Mandarin helps Singaporeans to connect with the 1.3 billion people in China is an ambitious statement.
I will never live long enough or find myself in a position where I have the opportunity or time to speak with 1.3 billion people.
Most people will connect with the Chinese either individually or in small groups.
In my encounters with Chinese all over the world, I am always asked what dialect I speak at home.
Even when one does not speak the same dialect as the Chinese one is interacting with, they are still interested to know. It is a good thing my dialect group is indicated on my birth certificate.
My answer? I tell them that I am Singaporean. I tell them that I speak Mandarin and English as those were what I learnt in school.
I also let them know that, alas, through lack of practice, my Mandarin is not as good as my English, as English is the language I use for work.
I tell them all this in Mandarin and switch to English when needed to better communicate my ideas.
However, what really breaks the ice is when I say a few words in whatever dialect or language the person I am talking to uses as his or her mother tongue. It would be a shame and a short-sighted move to let dialects die out in Singapore.
Mr Chiang Ming Yu
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