Keeping the dialects alive


By YUM CHA

Concern about the gradual decline in the use of the dialects among the Chinese has led to several moves to keep them relevant.

THE Chinese in Malaysia are fighting a losing battle in trying to keep their colourful dialects alive.

The Taiping Foo Chow Asociation, for example, is very concerned about preserving the clan’s heritage especially their dialect. But at their monthly meetings, Mandarin is the order of the day.

The reason is, if they stick to the Foo Chow dialect, not all of their members can speak fluently enough to conduct an official meeting.

For most of the clan associations, gone are the days when the dialects were commonly used among their members. Today, the use of the dialect is rapidly being overtaken by Mandarin and, to a certain extent, English, as the languages of choice.

Listen in to conversations among Chinese in a shopping mall or a restaurant, and chances are that most of them would be speaking Mandarin or English or a mix of both languages.

The Chinese are practical. For a language to be relevant and important to them, it must have other values apart from the cultural aspect.

Mandarin, unlike the dialects, has economic value, thanks largely to the growth of China as an economic powerhouse. In a sense, Mandarin has become a cultural passport to the Chinese world.

It is now the lingua franca for Chinese all over the world, just as English is one of the most widely spoken and important languages in the world today.

The proliferation of Chinese education is another reason for the rising dominance of Mandarin over dialects among the younger generation.

Today, a large number of Chinese children are in Chinese primary schools where Mandarin is the medium of instruction. This has led to Mandarin being used even at home.

However, two Chinese dialects, Hokkein and Cantonese, are still widely used in the community and there are several reasons for this.

Hong Kong, a leading financial and entertainment centre in the region, is one of the strong promoters of Cantonese, thanks to the thousands upon thousands of Cantonese movies and popular TV series being produced there, not to mention all those catchy Cantonese songs and gorgeous pop stars.

In fact, people in Penang, where Hokkien is the dominant dialect, began picking up Cantonese in order to follow Cantonese soap operas on TV. Now most Penang Chinese speak and understand some Cantonese.

Hokkein, on the other hand, is the lingua franca in Taiwan and Hokkein TV series produced in Taiwan are also popular among Chinese in the region, including Malaysia.

“Entertainment is keeping the two languages popular among Malaysian Chinese. It is sad as our dialects have to depend on entertainment and not the cultural value or as an heritage,” says Ai FM deejay and producer Chong Keat Aun.

Chong has been recording various Chinese dialects, most of them not widely spoken now, from the older generation and sharing them with his listeners on his radio programme every Thursday from 9pm to 11pm.

“There is beauty in every dialect. It is important to preserve the vocal heritage if we do not want the dialects to disappear,” he says.

However, Chong agrees that many among the younger generation view the use of dialects as outdated and unfashionable. “Some people have the wrong perception that only those from the kampung still use the dialects,” he says.

Hokkein is common in northern Malaysia and Cantonese in the Klang Valley, but fewer people are using other dialects such as Foochow, Hainan and Guangxi, Chong reveals.

Ai FM is the only radio station which still airs news in Teo Chew, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkein daily. Most of the Teo Chew and Hakka newsreaders are in their 50s, and it is difficult to find a good dialect newsreader nowadays, he adds.

Dr Yam Kah Kean of Universiti Malaya’s Chinese Studies Depart­ment says marriages between people from different dialect groups or clans is another strong factor behind the declining usage of dialects.

“In the old days, Chinese parents would insist that their children marry people from the same clans. But now, it is very common to see a Foochow married to a Cantonese or a Hakka marrying a Guangxi.

“They may not understand each other’s dialect, and will end up speaking another language which is most likely to be English or Mandarin,” he explains.

Dr Yam says most of the younger generation now could not speak dialects in their pure and uncorrupted form. They tend to use Malay, English or Mandarin words because they do not know the word in dialect for certain terms, especially modern and technological terms.

Dialects have not grown with the times, and there are no dialect equivalents for modern words or new terminology. For instance, how many of us know the Hokkein or Cantonese word for “computer”, “blog” or “surfing the Internet”? Are there equivalents for these terms? What about terms like climate change, terrorism or good governance?

Some clan associations have tried to keep the dialects alive by organising dialect-speaking classes. The Selangor and Wilayah Persekutuan Hainan Association, for example, has been organising dialect-speaking classes for eight years after realising the decline in usage of the Hainan dialect.

“Hainanese should be able to converse in Hainan dialect and this is our wish. The dialect makes us feel more attached to our families,” says association president Datuk Woo Ser Chai, noting that such language classes have been quite successful.

A 10-year-old student, he says, was sent to the class by his English-speaking parents and he was able to give a speech in Hainanese after attending the class for just three months.

Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Teo Chew Association vice-president Lim Keh Kuan says the association had also organised Teo Chew traditional singing classes as an alternative way to promote the dialect. So far, the response has been good.

The associations are also being criticised for not doing enough to promote the usage of the dialects. Some clan leaders do not even give speeches in their own dialect during events organised by their associations, so how are they going to promote the dialects when they themselves don’t use it, ponders one member.

Hakka Association chief Tan Sri Ng Teck Fong points out that most Hakka leaders could use their dialect to converse but chose to use Mandarin when giving speeches out of respect for those who could not understand the language.

“We try to at least give our opening remarks in Hakka,” he says.

It does look like the Chinese are fighting a losing battle to keep their dialects alive in Malaysia. But they are trying and whether they succeed or not, only time will tell.

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