Are dialects dying out?

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (left) launching the 2009 Speak Mandarin Campaign on 17 March 2009.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In Singapore, three decades of the 'Speak Mandarin Campaign' and the rise of English-speaking Chinese families have caused dialects to disappear. Does the same fate await Hokkien, Hainan, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese in Malaysia?

CHINESE dialects are on the brink of extinction. And it's happening sooner that expected.

The declining use of dialects among the younger generation is inevitable as Mandarin becomes the common language of the Chinese community, author Rita Sim notes.

The use of Chinese dialects has reduced significantly in the Chinese community in Malaysia in the past two decades, especially among Chinese-educated families, she says.

Sim, who holds a postgraduate diploma in Chinese from Ealing College, London, has written several books on the Malaysian Chinese community, including Unmistakably Chinese, Genuinely Malaysian (2012) and the recent Give And Take: Writings On The Malaysian Chinese Community (2014). She is also the cofounder of Centre for Strategic Engagement, a public policy research firm.

In Johor and Malacca, the most commonly used language at the market and hawker centres is now Mandarin - no longer Hokkien or Teochew, she observes.

Although Cantonese is still widely spoken in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, and Hokkien is still the "official language" among the Chinese in Penang, the younger generation is more comfortable with Mandarin due to their poor command of, or complete inability to speak, dialects.

Chinese parents from different dialect backgrounds do not want to burden their children with learning dialects as it has no economic value, she adds.

"Today, most Chinese parents are more keen to speak Mandarin or English with their children to prepare them for kindergarten enrolment at age three!

"They don't want their kids to lose out to others even at that young age.

"In future, Chinese dialects will only be used among the older generation, and this slow death will be an irreversible trend," she says, sharing how Mandarin has overtaken dialects as the common language in Chinese schools.

It is a cruel fact that influences of dialect are weakening, Universiti Malaya Chinese Studies Department senior lecturer Prof Dr Yam Kah Kean says.

And it is happening not only in Malaysia but in the "cradle land", too.

One example is how mainlanders from China have been swarming Hainan Island recently for economic reasons.

As Mandarin gradually becomes the medium among these mainlanders from different parts of China, the Hainanese dialect is slowly being silenced on the island.

He, however, remains optimistic.

Dialects are disappearing but they are still prevalent in our daily lives, he feels.

The younger generation may not know their own dialects, but they are still "somehow surrounded" by dialects in public places, he says, sharing how even foreign workers at his favourite pan mee stall speak Cantonese.

And the policy of banning dialects in Chinese schools, he argues, does not eradicate its use among kids.

"When I was in school, moves to encourage Mandarin were already in place but that didn't stop me from picking up dialects.

"Decades later, it's the same. Unlike me, my nieces and nephews don't speak a word of Hainanese at home, but they converse well in Hokkien, which they picked up at their schools and from their parents and relatives," he says, adding that RTM's Chinese radio station still broadcasts news in the different dialects.

While dialects have been closely linked with Chinese identity, Sim, however, sees them as "a minor element" of Chinese culture.

The Chinese will not lose touch with their roots as they can still preserve major elements of Chinese culture through the use of Mandarin, and the passing down of traditional values from our parents, she feels.

"Dialects are meaningful in preserving Chinese culture, heritage and tradition - for instance in Chinese opera, folk songs, and rituals.

"But the community places more importance on Chinese values, which are also preserved through Mandarin."

Dr Yam agrees. The importance of dialects in preserving Chinese culture, heritage, and tradition is limited, he feels.

In Chinese opera and religious rituals, though, dialects are still very important, he says.

"It's hard to find Hainanese Taoist priests in Malaysia.

"Often, Hainanese clan associations have no choice but to perform their religious rituals either in Mandarin or in other dialects."

Dialects, however, aren't as crucial when it comes to understanding heritage and philosophy, he says matter-of-factly.

"You need to know Mandarin to understand the classics, as most dialects are spoken, not written."

Taylor's Centre for Languages head Chandra Sakaran Khalid feels it's not a zero sum game.

We can preserve dialects while excelling in other languages. It boils down to the learner's mindset, he feels.

Mandarin or English will not "kill off" Chinese dialects because there's still a need to connect with people of the same community.

For instance, the Kelantanese dialect, and the Bahasa Malaysia spoken in the northern and southern parts of the country, are still going strong, he notes.

"It's the same with the Chinese dialects. People will always feel proud to speak in their own dialects.

"Even in an international university, students frequently use their own dialects."

Stressing the importance of Mandarin, Federation of Chinese Associations Malaysia (Hua Zong) secretary-general Dr Chua Yee Yen says it allows the different clans to communication with each other.

There are so many dialects that it would pose a problem for the different clans to speak to each other without a common language.

He feels that the fear of dialects dying out is unwarranted.

At home, dialects are still spoken. When fellow clansmen gather, they speak in dialects.

"And on TV, there are many shows where actors speak in dialects," he points out.