It won’t hurt to speak dialect

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National Day is around the corner and as a young Singaporean I believe that this is the time to think hard about the question of who we are, instead of looking at how far we have come, revelling in the glory of our epic rags-to-riches success story that have had many other nations, developed or developing alike, swooning at our feet.

And who we are – our identity – is inextricably intertwined with the languages we speak.

In early July, PM Lee had said that it was “not pragmatic” to relax the state’s stance on dialects, arguing that it would be difficult to master English, Mandarin and dialects simultaneously.

But why do we have to master dialects in the first place?

A few dialect phrases peppered in a stream of Mandarin is more than sufficient to get the message across to my 73-year old Hokkien-speaking father that I would like to have more curry to go with my drumstick.

We don’t have to be perfect with dialects and it certainly won’t hurt to speak them.

Fine, but what if dialects were spoken so freely that dialect phrases find their way into our English conversations at the workplace?

Well, we have long acquired the ability to code-switch between colloquial Singlish and our polished (and hopefully, unpretentious) English at the workplace, haven’t we?

We can definitely do the same with dialects.

Besides, no conclusive evidence in linguistic research points to our inability to learn and develop multiple languages simultaneously.

Linguist at Nanyang Technological University Luca Onnis said, “The literature I have perused suggests that there are no negative effects of multilingualism on the development of language skills in young adults. There is just no hard evidence of detrimental effects on the brain.”

While it is intuitively sensible to believe that the use of dialects sabotages our mastery of English or Mandarin, this claim is unfounded.

And Nominated MP Associate Professor Eugene Tan agrees.

“Dialects have been too common a scapegoat,” said Tan.

“English will continue to be dominant and important for inter-ethnic discourse. But if the concern is over the proficiency of English and Chinese, it has very little, if anything, to do with the Chinese dialects. The government must not make dialects appear to be a threat,” he added.

In fact, according to Tan, there are cases where learning dialects promotes, rather than impedes, the grasping of Mandarin.

“My Hong Kong friends tell me how their command of Cantonese actually helped learn Mandarin better after Hong Kong returned to China. The characters are the same; the difference is how it is pronounced. So through learning Cantonese they have the exposure to the Chinese script, syntax, and grammar,” he said.

Dialects have been vilified for contributing to poor Mandarin since the inception of the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979. Combine that with our unflinching faith towards pragmatism and a popular misconception that dialects are “lesser” languages and we find ourselves asking this question: “What good does it do to bring back the dialects, these secondary languages that we can live without?”

For one, we can’t be sure that life will be exactly the same without dialects. While commonly perceived by the pragmatic Singaporean mind as “useless” in a purely economic sense, dialects can actually come in handy when forging international business links.

NMP Tan said, “In terms of doing business in southern China like in Fujian and Guangdong provinces as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong, dialect proficiency (in Hokkien and Cantonese respectively) is an added advantage. It provides for much closer affinity between potential business partners.”

But even if dialects had no instrumental value, they should still be preserved because they are “full-blown linguistic systems” on par with what we consider proper languages or national languages.

They certainly are not “lesser languages”, and any less deserving of our respect for them.

Prof Onnis said, “The difference between a language and a dialect resides in the different social prestige that we attach to them.”

“Historically, all languages are dialects. For instance, French was a dialect many centuries ago, a variation of the various ways that Latin transformed itself across different regions in France. So French was one of the many variations present on the territory, and it just happened to be spoken in the North centre where Paris developed and prospered. As a consequence of the political prestige and power of Paris, this ‘Parisian’ dialect became to be the norm and as such was socially elevated to the French language,” he added.

“But it’s important to remind ourselves that this social elevation happened not because the Parisian variety was structurally any better than the other dialects, it was social pressures that made it to be considered a language. And so the national languages of the world are so for cultural and historic reasons, not because dialects are ‘lesser’ languages,” he added.

Perhaps an example closer to heart would enable us to better relate to Onnis’ argument: Mandarin, the official mother tongue of the Chinese in Singapore, is actually a Beijing dialect.

“Mandarin, for many of the older Singaporeans, is but an adopted or even imposed mother tongue,” said NMP Tan.

“Dialects are still a source of pride, belonging and identity for many older Singaporeans. And to be sure, dialects will suffer a slow, inexorable decline. So before we reach a critical stage or one of no turning back, it’s important to preserve what we have,” he added.

As we edge nearer to our nation’s independence day, we ought to remember that any civilization that severes roots with its past risks losing its identity.