Youths connecting to cultural roots by learning their dialects

Trilingual youths share why they learnt their dialects, and give tips on how to pick up the languages.

Celeste Lim

Yogurt lover with a Spotify playlist for every mood.

Published: 15 January 2021, 2:02 PM

Picture this: You’re at your extended family’s Chinese New Year gathering (with eight or less guests) and your older relatives are catching up, chattering among themselves and exchanging banter. 

You want to join in, but you only understand half the conversation because they are all speaking in dialect. 

This scenario may be all too familiar to youths who grew up bilingual, and did not learn their parents’ dialects.


Reunion dinners aren’t quite as fun when you can’t comprehend what your family is saying. PHOTO CREDIT: PIXABAY VIA PEXELS


But Brenda Lee, a 19-year-old polytechnic student, has never had to go through that struggle. As an Indonesian Hakka, she grew up with her parents speaking to her in a mixture of Hakka and Bahasa Indonesia. 

“Over time, the Indonesian Hakka community watered down the original language a lot, so I actually don’t know a lot of pure Hakka words,” she said. “If you separate just my pure Hakka and pure Bahasa, I’m a jack of all trades, master of none.”

As for Sung Chang Da, a 26-year-old in the real estate industry, he was inspired to start learning pure Hakka when he heard a speaker at the World Hakka Conference say that he spoke Hakka daily. He decided to start speaking the dialect with his parents and aunt, who he lived with, as they already conversed in the language..

“It was really awkward at first but I just kept at it,” he said. 

That was 10 years ago – he now considers himself proficient in the dialect and has even started an Instagram page, @hakka_scribbles, where he shares some Hakka words.


Chang Da usually teaches his followers words that are used in daily life, accompanied by photos of his calligraphy. PHOTO CREDIT: INSTAGRAM/@HAKKA_SCRIBBLES


On the other hand, Lee Xuan Jin, a 20-year-old national serviceman, learnt Hokkien not from speaking with others but by doing his research online. He got most of his Hokkien knowledge from now-inactive Chinese or Taiwanese forum pages.

Connecting to others with dialects

Xuan Jin wanted to learn Hokkien when he noticed his grandmother talking less. Although he could still feel her love when she took care of him, he wished to understand her as a person, rather than just a “silent caregiver”. 

Through learning Hokkien of his own accord, he got to learn more about his grandmother and got closer to her.


Xuan Jin referred to his Hokkien dictionaries when learning the dialect. PHOTO CREDIT: LEE XUAN JIN


Similarly, after grasping Hakka, Chang Da got to communicate to his grandmother, who he only saw once a year on Chinese New Year.

“I was able to have a long conversation with my grandmother about her life. Thankfully, I managed to have that conversation with her before she passed away,” he said.

Brenda is also able to fluently speak to her extended family in Hakka. 

For her siblings, who never quite picked up the dialect as well as she did, there is an intangible barrier that separates them. As a result, her sister confessed that she felt left out when meeting their extended family. 

Brenda said: “I always liked having a secret language with my family. As a kid I thought that made me very special, because even if people eavesdropped on our conversations, they wouldn’t understand anything.”

Once, when she was talking to her mother in public, a lady was shocked to hear the familiar dialect. She also happened to be Indonesian Chinese with Hakka ancestry. This sparked a friendship between her mother and the lady, and to this day they are still friends – all because Brenda spoke in Hakka and a stranger overheard it.


A perk to speaking dialect: When Chang Da was in university, he ordered his breakfast at the food court in Hakka, and got extra eggs. PHOTO CREDIT: GAELLE MARCEL VIA UNSPLASH

Keeping a dialect alive

Regrettably, dialects in Singapore are getting used less now. This is in part due to the Speak Mandarin Campaign launched in 1979, and more Singaporeans speaking English at home

While many youths were incentivised to learn dialects so they could speak to their grandparents, that may not be as necessary in the future, as the newer generation of grandparents born from the 1950s onwards will likely be English-educated and able to hold a conversation in English.

While Xuan Jin is relieved that newer grandparents and their grandchildren will be able to communicate effectively again, his sentimental side lamented that they would be bonding in a different language.

However, that doesn’t mean youths have no chance to learn their dialects. 

Xuan Jin created the Facebook page, Writing in Hokkien, in 2016 to teach others Hokkien, and show that the dialect is neither uncultured nor vulgar.


The page currently has over 5,000 likes on Facebook. PHOTO CREDIT: SCREENSHOT FROM FACEBOOK


Since he has firsthand experience with learning the dialect — everything from the Chinese characters to the romanisations — from scratch, he is all too aware of how steep the learning curve can be. 

He said: “I felt that I knew friends who wanted to learn Hokkien or other dialects but they didn’t know where to start. I decided to start this page to make what I’ve personally learnt more easily digestible for casual learners.”

Since Hakkas are a minority group within the Chinese community in Singapore, Chang Da hopes his Instagram page can create more visibility for them in Singapore. He also wants to encourage other Hakkas to learn more about their heritage.

In fact, his soon-to-be-born niece will be getting a head start on the language; both sides of her family are Hakka, so he already has plans to help her pick up the dialect easily by implementing a Hakka-speaking environment at home.


For other youths who wish to learn their dialects, Chang Da suggests finding practice partners, media content and online communities. PHOTO CREDIT: INSTAGRAM/@HAKKA_SCRIBBLES


Meanwhile, both Brenda and Xuan Jin suggested asking a family member how to say certain words of phrases in their dialect, and use that as a stepping stone to learning the language. 

Xuan Jin believes that it is inevitable that dialects will slowly go extinct, especially in Singapore, but he hopes that won’t be the case.

“I like the idea of passing down a legacy. Since these dialects have been there for centuries and even thousands of years, it would be nice if it continues to live on as an active language,” he said.

For Brenda, who exclusively speaks Hakka at home, her knowledge of the dialect is what binds her to her Indonesian Chinese roots. She has already learnt all that can from her parents, but her grasp of the dialect is not as strong as her ancestors.

She said: “The fact that my parents’ generation isn’t good at it anymore is a sign that the language is fading out. I actually do think Hakka might really disappear one day, which is something really sad to think about. 

“Because, at the end of the day, languages and culture are what bind people together.”

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