Do we need to protect our dialects?

By LIM MUN FAH
Translated by SOONG PHUI JEE

Rallies have been recently held in China and Hong Kong to promote the preservation of the Cantonese dialect after a political advisory body in Guangzhou wrote to bureaucrats proposing that local TV stations switch to use Mandarin for prime-time shows ahead of the Asian Games in November.

Many people regard the directive as an "oppression of language" and have launched a series of protests in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Have we ever thought of defending our own dialects when we saw how the protesters in Guangzhou and Hong Kong rallied for the preservation of Cantonese?

Chinese schools in Malaysia are different from those in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in that they have been teaching in Mandarin since half of a century ago while the dialects are only used for social communication in the community.

Basically, the Chinese community of Malaysia has been using various dialects to communicate. At the same time, the local dialect features are still very strong. For example, Cantonese has been widely used around central peninsula, including Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh. However, Hokkien is mainly used in Penang. As for the southern peninsula, most of the people use Teochew.

However, such a multi-dialect phenomenon has been gradually influenced by the "Speak Mandarin Campaign" of Singapore since the 70s. Particularly in urban areas of the southern peninsula, most of the young generations no longer speak or understand dialects as they have long exposed to Singaporean television and radio programmes. Therefore, some people joked that the Speak Mandarin Campaign was most successful not in Singapore, but in Johor Bahru. Today, 60% of Chinese children in Singapore predominantly speak English, instead of Mandarin, at home. As for Johor Bahru, I think most people will agree with me if I say 90% of Chinese speak Mandarin at home.

Is losing the ability to speak dialects equals to the start of losing the root, such as traditional rituals, ethnic customs and cultural heritage?

The question has been asked by some older generations in Johor Bahru in recent years. Some people even believe that there was a political motive when Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew promoted the Speak Mandarin Campaign instead of a campaign to popularise Mandarin. It is really a big mistake as we simply thought that speaking Mandarin could unify Chinese.

Perhaps it is due to the sense of crisis, some ethnic associations in Johor Bahru has started dialect classes in recent years.

For example, the Johor Bahru Hainan Association opens dialect classes under the initiative of its leaders as they believe that speaking dialects is the most intimate communication in parent-child relationship. They teach the young generations Hainanese so that they can use it and be proud of it. There seems to be a trend of increasing awareness for the use of dialects.

Currently, there are still over 6,000 languages in the world. However, more than half of them are endangered languages.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 10 languages disappear each year. Sadly, vulnerable languages have been gradually excluded following the increase in national consciousness and nation-state and the implementation of policies to promote national unity.

Based on this point of view, is defending the voices of the minority also means to defend democracy and human rights?

Sin Chew Daily

MySinchew 2010-08-03