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In Singapore, Chinese dialects revive after decades of restrictions


    Sim Syi Hon teaches lessons in Hokkien, which in the 1970s was still the first language of about 4 in 10 citizens, in Singapore, in October 2016. After decades in which the state promoted the study of Mandarin, then English, many young Singaporeans cannot communicate well with their elderly Hokkien-speaking relatives.

SINGAPORE >> The Tok and Teo families are a model of traditional harmony, with three generations gathered under one roof, enjoying each other’s company over slices of fruit and cups of tea on a Saturday afternoon in Singapore.

There is only one problem: The youngest and oldest generations can barely communicate with each other.

Lavell, 7, speaks fluent English and a smattering of Mandarin Chinese, while her grandmother, Law Ngoh Kiaw, prefers the Hokkien dialect of her ancestors’ home in southeastern China. That leaves grandmother and granddaughter looking together at a dollhouse on the floor, unable to exchange more than a few words.

“She can’t speak our Hokkien,” Law said with a sigh, “and doesn’t really want to speak Mandarin, either.”

This struggle to communicate within families is one of the painful effects of the Singapore government’s large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering.

Starting with a series of measures in the late 1970s, the leaders of this city-state effectively banned Chinese dialects, the mother tongues of about three-quarters of its citizens, in favor of Mandarin, China’s official language.

A few years later, even Mandarin usage was cut back in favor of the global language of commerce, English.

“Singapore used to be like a linguistic tropical rainforest — overgrown, and a bit chaotic but very vibrant and thriving,” said Tan Dan Feng, a language historian in Singapore. “Now, after decades of pruning and cutting, it’s a garden focused on cash crops: learn English or Mandarin to get ahead and the rest is useless, so we cut it down.”

This linguistic repression and the consequences for multigenerational families have led to a widespread sense of resentment — and now a softening in the government’s policy.

For the first time since the late 1970s, a television series was recently broadcast in Hokkien, which in the 1970s was the first language of about 40 percent of Singaporeans. Many young people are also beginning to study dialects on their own, hoping to reconnect with their past, or their grandparents.

And in May, the government endorsed a new multidialect film project, with the minister of education making a personal appearance at the film’s release, unthinkable just a few years ago.

The government’s easing of restrictions amid public discontent makes Singapore something of a case study for how people around the world are reacting against the rising cultural homogeneity that comes with globalization.

“I began to realize that Hokkien was my real mother tongue and Mandarin was my stepmother tongue,” said Lee Xuan Jin, 18, who started a Facebook page dedicated to preserving Hokkien. “And I wanted to get to know my real mother.”

For Singapore’s first generation of leaders, those sorts of ideas sounded like sentimentalism.

At the time of the founding of the Republic of Singapore in 1965, it was led by a charismatic and authoritarian prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who was a self-taught linguist. A product of the English-speaking elite who rarely spoke Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, Lee held the popular idea, discredited by linguists, that language was a zero-sum game: speaking more of one meant less mastery of another.

In short, he considered dialects a waste of the brain’s finite storage capacity when it should be filled with, above all else, English.

“He felt that since he couldn’t do it, the rest couldn’t do it,” said professor Lee Cher Leng, a language historian in the China studies department at the National University of Singapore, referring to Lee’s inability to fluently speak multiple languages. “He felt it would be too confusing for kids to learn the dialects.”

As the government considered which of Singapore’s many languages to focus on, Mandarin Chinese and English were the logical choices. China, although more than a thousand miles away, was the ancestral homeland of most Singaporeans and was embarking on economic reforms that captivated Lee. English, the language of Singapore’s elite since the British established a trading port here in 1819, was the dominant global language of culture and commerce.

But neither language had much to do with the people who lived in Singapore when the government launched its policy in the 1970s.

Then, as now, roughly 7 percent of Singaporeans came from southern India and most spoke Tamil. Another 15 percent spoke Malay. The ethnic Chinese, who then as now make up 75 percent of the population, had immigrated over the centuries from several mostly southern Chinese provinces, especially Fujian (where Hokkien is spoken) and Guangdong (home to Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka). Only 2 percent spoke Mandarin.

Although called “dialects” by the government, some of these Chinese tongues are at least as different as the various Romance languages. The government’s policy was something like ordering Spaniards, French and Italians to abandon the languages they grew up with in favor of Portuguese.

The policy was rolled out in waves. In 1979, the government launched a “Speak Mandarin” campaign. In some schools, pupils who spoke dialects were fined and made to write out hundreds of times, “I will not speak dialects.” The population was bombarded with messages that dialect speakers had no future.

By 1981, television and radio were banned from broadcasting almost all dialect shows, including popular music. That left many people cut off from society.

“Old people suddenly couldn’t understand anything on the radio,” said Lee Hui Min, a writer whose best-known work, “Growing Up in the Era of Lee Kuan Yew,” recounts those decades. “There was a sense of loss.”

Then, in 1987, to foster unity across Singapore’s three major ethnic groups, Chinese, Indian and Malay, English became the main method of instruction in all schools. Today, almost all instruction is in English except for a class in the student’s native tongue: Tamil and Malay for ethnic Indians and Malays, and Mandarin for ethnic Chinese.

The dominance of English was captured in a recent government survey that showed English is the most widely spoken language at home, followed by Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Only 12 percent of Singaporeans speak a Chinese dialect at home, according to the survey, compared with an estimated 50 percent a generation ago.

“Sometimes people say the Singaporeans aren’t too expressive,” said Kuo Jian Hong, the artistic director of The Theater Practice, an influential theater founded by her father, the pioneering playwright and arts activist Kuo Pao Kun. “I feel this is partly because so many of us lost our mother tongue.”

But as Singapore has prospered, many are searching for their cultural roots, a trend that has picked up since the passing of former Prime Minister Lee in 2015. Some are trying to protect historical monuments, others challenging official versions of history, or passionately defending “Singlish,” a local patois of English, Chinese dialects and Malay.

For some, it means committing to learn their ancestral language.

At the Hokkien Huay Kuan, a community center founded in 1840 to promote education and social welfare among immigrants from Fujian province, classes have been offered for the past few years in the Hokkien dialect.

One recent Friday evening, about 20 people sat in a classroom learning phrases like “reunion meal,” “praying for blessings” and “dragon dance.” Three students were doctors specializing in geriatric care who wanted to understand older patients. Others were simply curious.

“I think it’s to understand our roots,” said Ivan Cheung, 34, who works in Singapore’s oil refining industry. “To know our roots you have to know dialect.”

The head of the community center, Perng Peck Seng, said that it, too, had seen the effects of the government policy. When he joined in the 1980s, all meetings were held in Hokkien and Mandarin. Now they are held in English and Mandarin because too few people, even in his organization, speak Hokkien fluently enough to conduct meetings.

But Perng stopped short of criticizing the government. Instead, he said Singaporeans themselves had to take responsibility for the loss of their language diversity.

“Sometimes I think we are too docile,” Perng said. “Leaders said if you speak too much dialect it’ll affect your success in life, so many people dropped it on their own accord. The biggest problem is our own consciousness.”

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