Hokkien is a dying language and we may lose more than just words.

Hokkien is a dying language in Singapore. One foot is in the grave, that is for sure. In fact, very soon, we may find no new speakers of Hokkien.

Recently, at a intergenerational community event, I had a first-hand encounter of how serious this problem is. Despite how meaningful the occasion was meant to be, it failed terribly as young children as well as most of the adult facilitators were unable to communicate and connect with the seniors in Hokkien.

In a similar nature, while volunteering at a nursing home, I noticed that majority of the seniors would pass instructions in Hokkien. However, most healthcare professionals and volunteers speak English and/or Mandarin, leading to a communication breakdown among them.

To illustrate, there was one day when I noticed a nurse had unintentionally wheeled a senior to a spot right under an air-conditioned unit. Barely a few minutes later, the senior was visibly shivering and turning white. Even though the nurse was merely a few steps away, the senior chose not to call out to the nurse for help. I walked up hurriedly and brought her to a warmer area. I asked the senior in Hokkien,

“An zua li bo gio missy lai dao ka ciu?” (“为什么你没叫护士来帮?”; “Why didn’t you ask the nurse to help you?”)

“Wa bueh hiao gong ang mo weh, yee lang bueh meng pek wah eh.” (“我不会说英语,他们不会明白我的.”; “I don’t speak English. They won’t understand me anyway.”)

She expressed her exasperation in Hokkien and conceded to her fate.

We depended on seniors to build our nation. Now, we are killing their language and expecting them to speak ours instead.

Imagine how would you feel if you are in the shoes of these seniors. Bear in mind, you are unable to express your world in your own language. Instead, you are reduced to mere gestures and grunts, and perhaps simple words such as “yes” and “no”.

Your identity is suppressed. You think you are dispensable and no longer important to the society. You lose your sense of belonging and connection with the surrounding world. In short, you feel abandoned and you are an outsider in your own country.

Gradually, you give up talking to people. Not only you have lost your ease of physical mobility, it seems you are now losing the right to speak too. Yes, Hokkien is a dying language, but what about yourself? Do you not matter anymore?

The dying language problem just got personal.

Now, recall about the last time you visited your grandparents or had a gathering with the older extended family members. What language did you speak in?

I personally know of many Hokkien-speaking seniors who picked up English or Mandarin, out of pure love as well as a desperation to connect with the younger generations.

“No choice, the children these days do not speak Hokkien!” I have heard that statement from many seniors time and time again.

A thought unwittingly came to my mind one day. What about the other way round?

How many people of Hokkien descent are actively learning to speak Hokkien so that they can get to know their grandparents and their roots better?

How much of the older generation’s ideas, knowledge and values are the younger ones missing out, just because they are unable to communicate in Hokkien?

What about you? Is Hokkien a dying language in your family?

Hokkien is a Dying Language, based on UNESCO AD Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages

There seem to be undisputed evidence that Hokkien is on its path of extinction, by the standards of UNESCO AD Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages.

Absolute number & Proportion of Hokkien Speakers within the total population

Based on the General Household Survey conducted in Singapore in 2015, there are 1,151,285 Hokkiens in Singapore. This represents approximately 40% of Singapore’s Chinese population. However, of these people, only 205,300 of them (17.8%) indicated that they speak Hokkien most frequently at home.

With English as the main language as well as medium of instruction in public school education, coupled with the Speak Mandarin campaign in 1979, Singapore Chinese today do not have to use Hokkien for everyday interactions. In addition, given that Hokkien is not the language of international trade, it is too easy to agree that there is no practical need to pass the language on to the next generation.

Hokkien has not been actively passed on to the next generation.

Our multiple interviews with young parents reflected a general lack of interest in the dying language. The common replies ranged from a curt “what for?”, to “I would rather they learn Mandarin or other languages.”

Even if one wish to learn Hokkien, the educational materials made available have been minimal, if not, next to none. In fact, here’s a challenge for you. Step into a bookstore in Singapore. How many books written in Hokkien can you find? How many books are about the heritage of Hokkiens?

Dying Language Singapore Learn Dialect No Hokkien Books

The presence of Hokkien in local media is also inappreciable. To illustrate, when was the last time you watched a Hokkien show or listen to a Hokkien programme on the radio?

Singaporean dialect drama series “Eat Already?” was in its fourth season this year and could be the series finale. Whilst a great effort to reach dialect-speaking seniors, it occupied an off-peak slot (i.e. every Friday at 12pm) and was hardly an effective medium to trigger interest among the younger generations.

The death of Hokkien will be the death of a culture.

Hokkien is taking its last bow soon. It would take no more than a few more decades before the once-native language becomes a foreign tongue on the streets of Singapore. When we lose Hokkien, we lose a whole set of fascinating culture including traditions, myths, stories and songs. Now what will you do to help save your language and cultural identity?

It’s never too late to learn your dialect. We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!