Nationally Speaking: Rediscovering our Chinese Dialects

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Jermaine Lee (24A01A)

Being Hokkien is a part of my identity I recognise in name, but not form. On my birth certificate, it’s written as my dialect group. However, my sense of belonging to it feels merely superficial—I can technically say I am Hokkien, but I often don’t feel like I am. 

Having spent the better part of my childhood living with my grandmother, I can understand basic phrases, but my vocabulary is still pathetically paltry. I can barely construct simple sentences—I’m going to sleep (wa ai kun liao), I’m seventeen this year (wa gin ni zhap chit hei), and I don’t know (wa mm zai) are about as much as I know. 

This translates roughly to “What time should I fetch you home?”

The words and tones don’t fit right in my mouth either. When I speak Hokkien, I cringe at how wrong I sound. I wish I could confidently say that I am fluent in this language, but it’s not something I think I can do, at least not in the near future. 

By extension, I feel like I will never be “Hokkien enough”. This word on my birth certificate might never feel like it is mine. 

My struggle isn’t unique. The number of households speaking Chinese dialects at home decreased drastically from 76% of Chinese households in 1980 to 16% in 2015. When I ask my Chinese friends what dialect groups they’re from, many don’t even know. Some can understand their dialects because they grew up with their grandparents, but even then, most, like me, have limited fluency in speaking them. 

So, what are dialects, exactly? The ancestors of most Singaporean Chinese people hail from Southern Chinese provinces like Fujian and Guangdong. Accordingly, the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese together form more than three-quarters of the Singaporean Chinese population. What we call “dialects” in Singapore are the languages used in these areas — Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. 

Mandarin, what Chinese Singaporeans refer to as our “mother tongue” is actually a Northern Chinese dialect. In the 1970s, before most language policies like the Bilingual Policy (1966) and Speak Mandarin Campaign (1979) discouraging the use of dialects took full effect, only 2% of ethnic Chinese in Singapore spoke Mandarin. Dialects are the languages the vast majority of our ancestors spoke before immigrating to Singapore, not Mandarin.

Dialects thus give Singaporeans access to a better understanding of their origins and root them in their cultural identities. As Minister of Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, acknowledged, “[d]ialect groups are important to many people…as a means of recognising one’s identity and one’s roots”.

Local dialects also bind different communities together and demonstrate Singapore’s racial and cultural diversity, making them an essential part of Singapore’s national identity. Local dialects have evolved from their original forms through interactions between different racial communities. An example would be Singaporean Hokkien, which includes Malay loanwords such as “suka”, which means “like” and “sayang”, which means “dear”. Creoles unique to Singapore such as Baba Malay have also been developed.


Yet, despite the importance of dialects to Chinese Singaporeans and Singapore in general, the reputation of dialects has significantly deteriorated over the years. While doing research for this article, I came across this Reddit post. The cardinal rule of Reddit is not to take anything people post too seriously, but I couldn’t help but be incensed by it. It’s unreasonable for the poster to go so far as to say certain cultures are unsavoury, much less adding “[t]here’s a reason why most people in prisons speak Hokkien instead of Mandarin”. 

In May 2022, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority announced that new digital birth certificates would no longer include the dialect groups of the child’s parents. Most reactions took a more fatalistic approach to the issue of dialect loss, with jabs such as put liao is it mean know how to speak [their] dialect[s]?, The newer generation don’t care any more. Most can’t even speak [their] dialect[s] and No purpose for this anymore

In the face of these challenges that dialect preservation faces, I was surprised to find that a group of RI students have set up their own CE01 to ameliorate this issue: Raffles Dialects. The core team, who are fluent in their dialects, teach regular lessons on them when they can. 

Out of curiosity, I signed up for one of their lessons. Everyone else was learning Cantonese, so I sat with Gareth Quek (24A01D) and Justin Sim (24A01C), who teach Teochew and Hokkien respectively, to ask them about their experiences learning their dialects. 

Some dialect Gareth wrote on the board with their Japanese/Korean counterparts to demonstrate their similarities

“I like dialect[s],” Justin responded when I asked them why they learned how to speak their dialects. “During my childhood, I heard my grandparents and parents talk in Hokkien. I was very surprised when I went to primary school and discovered people don’t know any dialect[s]. I learn it from daily life, in conversation.” Gareth had a similar experience: “At home, my Dad would speak to my Grandma in Teochew and we would speak Teochew in my Grandma’s house. Over time, I realised that it had a very big significance to my identity as a Singaporean. 

“I properly tried to learn at the end of 2020. Perseverance is important. I had to go online and there aren’t as many resources online (Hokkien and Teochew a lot less than Cantonese) compared to languages like German. I went the extra step to learn it formally, like how to write and speak it. I made a Google document. Every single word I hear from my parents, ‘the wild’, or any sort of media I consume I will add to the list. I’m still writing this list till now. Every time I read it, I can remember the conversations I had or heard that led to the usage of a word.”

“Dialects are very important culturally, but it’s not practical unless you want to talk to your grandparents,” Justin sighed, “Singapore Hokkien and Teochew have evolved so far that it’s very distinct from Taiwan and [Mainland Chinese] Hokkien.” 

“Distinct from Malaysian Hokkien too. Every part of Southeast Asia has a different variation of Hokkien,” Gareth agreed, “Think of suyus (proverbs) — Singaporean Hokkien and Teochew have their own variations. In Hokkien, there’s a phrase ‘kaki kong kaki song’, which means ‘oneself talk oneself happy’.”

“Singaporeans are very pragmatic, so they may not learn it because it may not be useful to them in their work. Our generation is the generation of globalisation. We might have taken on influence from the West and that’s natural. Our elderly generation had a stronger sense of culture and identity with their dialect. [Our generation’s] inability to converse with grandparents causes a gap — it’s hard to understand our grandparents as a person without being fluent. It’s very hard to understand the culture they grew up with, which is your family heritage”

“It’s regrettable [that our peers are mostly unable to understand their dialects]. I know peers who view dialect as something on their Singpass—just a word with no meaning to it. Some people I know don’t know what their dialect is beyond superficial Singlish,” Justin shared. “It’s not easy for our peers to learn their dialects or even have a basic interest in them or have influence in their lives,” Gareth acknowledged. 

Why then, are our peers interested in learning dialects? “There are people who want to learn about their culture and heritage, but it’s not the main reason. One person wanted to speak to his grandparents because his grandmother is Cantonese. It’s one of the main reasons we catered our lessons towards speaking to the elderly. Cantonese is also usable [in work and daily life] since it’s spoken in Hong Kong.” They started Raffles Dialects when they were in Y1-4, and found that the response to their initiatives was much better on the JC side since their peers were more interested in exploring interests outside of their academics. 

There weren’t many students in the class, so everyone sat at a small cluster of tables. The “teachers” quizzed their students on vocabulary they had learned in previous lessons and they asked questions in response. Lee Chun Hei (24S07A) gently guided their pronunciation and Rita Ng (24S05B) repeated the new vocabulary words syllable by syllable. “I know siew mai!” Someone exclaimed. 

I was struck by how eager everyone was to learn. They were there because they wanted to,  making the extra effort to come here on an otherwise free Wednesday afternoon. The students at the table laughed, and I asked Gareth what they were talking about. “They’re asking how to say ‘I like pretty girls’”, he rolled his eyes. 

I left the Raffles Dialects class in awe of the work that our peers have been putting in to help us rediscover our dialects. Online teaching material I found was mainly on Taiwanese Hokkien, which I found difficult to read and understand. The Raffles Dialects team is passionate about preserving dialects in an accessible manner: they create lesson packs for people who can’t attend their in-person lessons and those who did to revise what they’ve learned, set up booths in Bishan Library and the Y1-4 canteen and regularly post social media content introducing phrases in dialect. 

It’s true that our dialects will likely fade with our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Even with our peers’ efforts to reclaim their dialects and share them with as many people as they can, they will likely not be enough for us to be fully fluent. 

However, we can’t, in good conscience, take a fatalistic approach to the issue of dialect preservation and give up on it altogether. There are still opportunities for us to learn them—we just have to reach out and find them. 

Even knowing how difficult this endeavour is, I still want to learn Hokkien. I’m still hopeful that if enough of us make the effort to rediscover and learn our dialects, we can still hold onto them for as long as we can. I’m still hopeful that if we try, the dialect group we belong to will mean more to us than just a category on our birth certificates. I’m still hopeful we will be able to reclaim our dialect groups as part of our identities. 

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