Are dialects dying out?

Are dialects dying out?
Dialect picture books in Cantonese.
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.

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