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Should We Learn to Let Our Dialects Go?

Should We Learn to Let Our Dialects Go?

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  • Current Affairs


For the past 8 months or so, I’ve been learning Cantonese. While I’m hitting my big 3-0 soon, this is the first time I’m actually trying to learn (what’s supposed to be) my native dialect.

My grandmother is one reason for this. She’s not going to be around for much longer, and before that happens, I want at least to be able to have a conversation with her. Right now, we’re at hi-byes and how-are-yous. Clearly, I have a long way to go.

As a child, our conversations always required the assistance of a translator. Usually, an uncle or a parent played this part. It resembled one of those awkward moments when you’re out with your parents and they bump into an acquaintance of theirs.

The acquaintance asks how old you are, despite you being right there and being able to speak for yourself. You want to say, “Stop looking at me, smiling at me, and talking about me!” But you can’t, because he isn’t even addressing you.

This isn’t how I want to remember conversations with my grandmother—her watching self-consciously as I speak to her without actually speaking to her.

But the other reason is perhaps equally, if not more, important for framing what I want to say about dialects here.

by the time I was done making my way through all of Wong Kar Wai’s films, I wanted to speak Cantonese

When I saw In the Mood for Love for the first time, I wanted to be Tony Leung. I fantasised about my own encounter with unrequited love, personified no less by a slender, unreachable character in a cheongsam.

This never happened. But by the time I was done making my way through all of Wong Kar Wai’s films, I wanted to speak Cantonese. All of a sudden it was sultry and it oozed with suppressed longing. It had become for me the language of shapeless, inexpressible emotion.

When I thought of Cantonese, I thought of dark alleys, neon lights, and poetry.

A lot of our obsessions with antiquated traditions and heritage require a romanticised encounter of some sort to change what they mean to us. Otherwise, they are just language barriers or unnecessary and meaningless family traditions.

For a lot of today’s millennials, it is nostalgic sentiment that has transformed dialects into commodities—a yearning for an abstract “better, simpler time.”

Chinese dialects feature regularly on T shirts, kitchenware and novelty objects. They become memes in Chen Tianwen’s music videos; memes that we suddenly love and appreciate, that make us sigh wistfully, “If only I could could speak Hokkien beyond being able to name the respective genitals with it.”

Chinese dialects on novelty objects (Photo Credit: Sibey Nostalgic).
While great for revitalising our dialects, these trends, this trading of vulgarities instead of verbs and adjectives, ask a more serious question: If we are losing our dialects, does that mean they are no longer relevant?

Those on the side of history, heritage and tradition will argue that the preservation of such linguistic institutions have value in and of themselves. We need to remember who we are and where we came from. Culture matters.

But to what extent does it, really?

From a practical point of view, language exists to facilitate communication. In an ideal world, we would all speak the same one.

As dialects are spoken less and less in Asian households, they really just reflect how times are changing. The funny thing is, history tells us that we cannot stop what time erodes even though it is history itself that preserves our memories of them.

In the coming decades, as Asian countries and societies continue shedding their more traditional values to embrace a globalised world, dialects might find themselves facing a revival of sorts. After all, cultural erosion is a timeless and perpetual adversary that needs to be opposed at all costs.

It won’t be surprising when one day, being able to speak a dialect becomes a hipster badge of honour; a testimony to being in touch with your roots.

But when that time comes, none of us should be ashamed that having never had occasion to speak it, we find that we do not know the words. For those of us who just want a conversation with our grandmothers, that’s perfectly fine too.

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Joshua Lee