An ex-investment banker who gave up his high life to help Singapore dialect-speaking seniors be heard
“Yes, the first few years were fun. I was wined and dined. I travelled around the world in business class. However, I started to feel a sense of emptiness in me. I was hardly home. I missed out on so many things that meant more to me, be it family celebrations or even my grandma’s funeral. For example, when my grandma passed away, I could only be back in Singapore for a day. The very next day, my boss insisted that I had to fly back to Hong Kong. In his words, ‘I had more important work to settle’. It got me thinking – what is truly important?”
During the years that Eugene was away, time took a toll on his parents as he witnessed them getting visibly older and weaker. So Eugene moved back to Singapore to be closer to his family. He found joy in volunteering at nursing homes, where he built a rapport with the residents by speaking in their dialects and making them laugh. That was when he noticed that many dialect-speaking seniors in Singapore were often neglected because of language barriers.
“I could sense how much these seniors yearn to see their grandchildren. But when their grandchildren turn up, they could hardly talk to one another. The younger generation hardly speaks dialects. What do you expect the older generation to do then? Should they pick up our language or should we pick up theirs?”
This train of thoughts led Eugene to establish LearnDialect.sg. “Besides teaching dialects, I also hope to encourage active seniors to come forth as facilitators. So they can leverage on their dialect competency to make a dignified living.”
A native Teochew & Hokkien speaker, Eugene had a first-hand experience of not being able to speak a dialect when he moved to Hong Kong for work. It was just shortly after the Asian Financial Crisis, a critical period when it was way too easy to lose his job. To keep up and communicate effectively with his colleagues, Eugene picked up Cantonese on his own within 3 months. This is despite him having no prior knowledge of Cantonese and a hectic 16-hour work schedule daily. The time pressure, together with the determination to excel in his job, pushed him to discover effective shortcuts to be fluent faster.
“Yes, it can be done. I want to show you that as long as you have the heart to learn a dialect, you can pick it up just as easily too.”
A serial entrepreneur who overcame her language challenges to build fun learning experiences in Hong Kong and Singapore
Ski self-professed to be the most untalented person when it comes to languages. Growing up in a family that speaks mainly Mandarin, she struggled with learning English during her school days.
“You won’t forget those days of growing up. Being laughed at by your peers, or being embarrassed when your teacher deliberately picked you to read an article, just so that she could use you as a “bad example” to demonstrate the wrong pronunciation.”
And then, in her 20s, she moved to Hong Kong – a country that predominately speaks Cantonese – when she barely understood a single word of it.
“Zero. I didn’t know Cantonese at all. Naively, I thought I could make it through with Mandarin or English. But I learnt quickly that I need Cantonese to bond with the locals, especially since I was building a business.” Today, she runs a top-rated walking tour company, Big Foot Tour, in Hong Kong. Ironically, her tours focus on sharing with English-speaking tourists almost all things Cantonese via fun experiences. These include picking up some commonly-used Cantonese words, so that these visitors can enjoy friendly banters with locals and secure good bargains for themselves at the markets.
“What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger.” Having been through difficult learning phases herself, Ski understood the challenges faced when picking up a foreign language – from being overwhelmed with never-ending new vocabulary words to psychological barriers such as being afraid to make mistakes. Rather than avoiding them, she made use of the opportunities to observe, synthesize and then devise the best strategies to make learning languages easy.
“It’s never too late to learn. But in Singapore, it’s too easy to give up on learning dialects as we turn our focus to Mandarin or English. Building from my own personal experiences, I hope to provide a safe, positive and conducive environment for younger generations to learn dialects in Singapore.”