Demand for lessons has shot up in the last two to three years, from those who want to connect with the elderly or their own roots
Sarah Xing (middle) is one of some 30 pharmacy students at the National University of Singapore who has signed up for Cantonese classes. (Photo: Ruth Smalley)
SINGAPORE: In the hallways of one of the science blocks, enthusiastic students like Ms Sarah Xing can be heard loudly chanting words like “Yuht, ngee, sahm” – one, two, three in Cantonese – and bursting into laughter when someone gets the tones wrong. Which is frequently.
The 21-year-old is one of 30 undergraduates from the Department of Pharmacy at the National University of Singapore (NUS) who signed up for a course in Cantonese. As a subject, it’s got nothing in common with their usual staple of cell biology, analytical chemistry and pharmaceutical analysis. It adds zero value to their grades.
But, these third-year students clearly think it important enough to make time in their hectic schedules for learning the Chinese dialect.
The four-week course was organised by their seniors, to better equip these future pharmacists for when they encounter older, dialect-speaking patients on the job. Said Ms Xing: “With our aging population, a high percentage of the patients will be elderly. And if I can speak their language and understand their situation, I can provide better care to them.”
The pharmacy undergraduates find speaking a dialect useful when doing volunteer outreach work with elderly clients. (Photo courtesy of NUS)
She also wanted to be able to communicate better with her maternal grandmother. Like a number of elderly Singaporeans, grandma speaks Mandarin, but often lapses into her dialect when she struggles to find the Mandarin words.
BRIDGING THE GENERATIONAL RIFT
At the other end of the age spectrum, most of Ms Xing’s friends are like her – able to speak only a smattering of their family’s dialect.
In 2015, some 12 per cent of Singaporeans said they spoke mainly Chinese dialects at home. That’s down from 14.3 per cent in 2010, and 18.2 per cent in 2005, according to the General Household Survey.
But more and more, younger Singaporeans are going back to school to learn their grandparents’ tongues – in large part, to bridge that linguistic gap between the generations.
Catering to them are groups like Viriya Community Services, which started free Learn My Dialect classes in 2007 to build awareness and promote intergenerational bonding.
Response was slow initially 10 years ago. But in the past two years, their classes in Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese have boomed in popularity.
Viriya Community Services finds itself conducting more classes under its Learn My Dialect programme, compared to 10 years ago.
Classes were once conducted every three months – these days, it’s more like three times a week, at the request of clients who include schools, community centres, groups and hospitals keen on training their nurses.
“We see a growing interest from those in the medical field and those doing community outreach programmes, because they deal mainly with the elderly who understand only dialect,” said Michelle Cheng, 33, Viriya’s senior programme executive.
Even when the patients do speak Mandarin, pharmacy student Ms Ang Soon Jun has noticed on home visits with volunteer group NUS CHAMPS how these old folks build a closer rapport with – and sometimes reveal personal details only to – medical volunteers who can speak their dialect.
That’s why she signed up for the course, the 21-year-old said.
(Photo courtesy of NUS)
KEEPING HERITAGE ALIVE
Various clan associations that CNA Insider spoke to also reported an increase in sign-ups for dialect lessons. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK) said interest has been growing over the last three years, especially among those in the medical field, lawyers, undergraduates and property agents.
Mr Jeremiah Soh, a marketing executive with the association, said: “Most of those who sign up for these courses do so because of work.
There is a small percentage that is keen to learn the dialect to know about their culture and roots.
Once held on an ad-hoc basis, these days, four general Hokkien conversational courses – each about three months long, for a fee of S$280 – are conducted each year, with one or two specialised courses involving medical jargon.
Students ranged in age from 17 to their 40s – a demographic that grew up in the Speak Mandarin Campaign era post-1979, with little exposure to Hokkien, speaking mainly English or Mandarin at home.
Hokkiens make up the largest dialect group among Singapore's ethnic Chinese.
The Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, the umbrella body for Teochew clans in Singapore, also noted increased enrolment in its language classes held three times a week. Most are adults under 40, and include non-Chinese and even foreigners from Europe.
The Char Yong DaBu Association, meanwhile, is working hard to bring Hakka back to life in song. The group with close to 20 members, aged from 30 to 70, has noticed more young people signing up to connect with their roots and history – some, after their grandparents died without teaching them the dialect.
The songs they belt out harken back to a time when their ancestors sang on mountain tops. Mr Li Rong De, 58, said he finds them a great tool in teaching languages. One song, for instance, goes:
“You ask where Hakka people are from? They come from the Yellow River. Where do Hakka people live? All mountains have Hakka people.”
Said Mr Li: “I feel very happy when people take the initiative to understand their own roots.”
Children singing nursery rhymes at the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan's preschool, as a part of their life skills curriculum.
A GRANDFATHER’S HOPE
One grandfather has taken matters into his own hands.
Mr Zhang Shi Yu peppers his conversations with his grandsons with Hokkien, even though they prefer to converse in a mix of English and Mandarin. He believes that by encouraging them to speak the dialect, he is helping to preserve his Hokkien heritage.
Said the 70-year-old who is Chinese educated: “This is our ancestors’ language… I want my grandchildren to know about Hokkien and our origins.”