We were recently introduced to a campaign called "My Father Tongue", which is aimed at encouraging young people to pick up dialects.
Started in October last year by a group of final-year university students, this certainly sounds good for the many of us who are useless at them, and therefore cannot speak to our grandparents — most recently, they're offering free dialect classes at a series of community centres for anyone who is interested to learn.
Anyway, we took a look at their site, and here's part of what their "About Us" page says:
"Dialects form an integral part of the nation's fabric and they help connect us with the pioneer generation and their roots... However, dialects have undoubtedly lost their significance in our society as more youths today are unable to speak them."
Herein lies the irony:
This current development where youths are unable to communicate with older people using dialects stems from campaigns implemented in Singapore to eradicate dialect use nationally.
The Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in Singapore in 1979. And since we are able to link to a website now, which has been updated as recently as last year, it means this campaign is actually still going on today.
And why is that so? Because dialects were thought of as a hindrance to language, math and science acquisition, so much so that dialects were removed from TV and radio to provide zero opportunities for Singaporeans to be exposed to them.
The late Lee Kuan Yew famously said in a 1981 speech at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce:
"I underline the government’s determination that nobody should use dialects. Indeed wise parents will never let their children speak dialect at all ... The more one learns dialect words, the less space there is for Mandarin words or English words, or multiplication tables or formulas in mathematics, physics or chemistry."
Exactly a decade later, the late Lee's successor Goh Chok Tong for some reason saw the launch (another one?) of the same campaign, where he said the following:
"For the Chinese community, our aim should be a single people, speaking the same primary language, possessing a distinct culture and a shared past, and sharing a common destiny for the future. Such a Chinese community will then be tightly knit. Provided it is also tolerant and appreciative of the other communities’ heritage, able to communicate with them in english-container, and work with them for a common future, Singapore will grow to become a nation."
And guess who's backing this project (which we're not faulting, by the way, we must stress — it's a great one, that's why we're writing about it in the first place):
1. The National Heritage Board
2. The National Youth Council and its Young Changemakers grant:
3. The People's Association:
We'll leave that for you to think about.
Top photo courtesy of MyFatherTongue.sg.