Friday, 4 June 2010

In defence of our Chinese dialects

The Chinese Malaysians are really a diverse lot. In the last six hundred years or so since our ancestors arrived on these shores from various parts of China, we have the Hokkiens, the Cantonese, the Foochows, the Hakkas, the Teochews, the Hainanese and others, all actively interacting socially with one another and the other races.

As a race in today's modern society, we still observe a lot of the old Chinese cultural practices. Religions may differ but cultural practices are largely retained. Including the dialects. Typically, people of my generation converse a lot in our local dialects with large smatterings of English, Mandarin and Bahasa Melayu thrown into the conversation.

But I fear that this may not last. Slowly but surely, unless we Chinese in Malaysia are serious enough to arrest the situation, we stand to lose this sub-culture which we call our dialects. This aspect of our heritage may be gone within the next two or three generations.

Although I say this now, it is nothing new to me. In fact, I have been observing this unwelcome trend for quite a while now. Take this morning, for example, which only reinforced my observations.

At the food court, I was sitting near a middle-aged couple who had brought their grandson along for breakfast. The boy was probably not more than three years ago. While the couple was talking to one another in Hokkien, to their grandson it was totally in Mandarin. I asked them whether they speak to the child in Hokkien? They said no, and his parents don't too.

Why on earth, I wondered to myself, couldn't they talk to the boy in their own dialect? Okay, I accept that in today's world it is important for the Chinese here (and elsewhere too) to master Mandarin and it is never too early to start off on this language.

But modern parents in their haste to give their children this linguistic head start in life are also depriving their children from recognising and using their own rich, local dialects. This, I find to be very disconcerting.

Mandarin may be the unifying tongue for the Chinese people in China and of course, it is important too that the Chinese Malaysians know the unifying language of their ancestors but for heaven's sake, learning this language should not be made at the expense of our own heritage here in Malaysia.

Our forefathers came to Malaya to make better lives for themselves. They toiled hard and while they assimilated well into this land, they never forgot or shed their own local dialects. Like I said earlier, the dialects are our sub-cultural heritage. In the past, they were strong focal points of socialisation, unification and loyalty, but of course today, these features have become less significant.

Nevertheless, I still believe in this concept of the dialects as focal points in our Malaysian society. The dialects still have an important part in play in our Chinese Malaysian culture and is an integral part of our heritage. That's what makes it so rich and fascinating. That's what makes it so unique here too, a melting pot of dialects within such a small country. We should be proud of our ability to understand the dialects and never give them up.

So to the modern parents, I urge them to please help to pass down this sub-culture which I call your dialect to your children. Make them appreciate their heritage and make them be proud to know and use their dialects.

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