Over the past few years, clan associations such as the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan and Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan have seen an upswing in the number of students signing up for Hokkien and Teochew dialect classes.
Lee Cher Leng, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Chinese Studies, says the revival of interest in Chinese dialects among young adults is sparked by a practical need to converse with an ageing population that’s neither fluent in English nor Mandarin.
“Last year, I found the university’s pharmacy students taking on four-week Cantonese and Hokkien courses that weren’t part of the official curriculum. From a health-care perspective, speaking a common language enables them to open up the lines of communications with patients,” says Lee.
Beyond administering to the elderly, Lee notes that the interest in learning the mother tongue of Singapore’s pioneer generation is a sign of individuals attempting to anchor their identities. “Knowing a language opens the door to its culture. There are idioms and lullabies that go with it, and songs that tell you where you’re from.”
For Lee, who’s in her 50s, languages are a rich part of Singapore’s heritage that’s worth preserving. “It’s time to look beyond our material successes and think more about the intangible values and identity of being a diasporic Chinese in Singapore. Let us not lose this very rich culture that we have.”