Sunday 6 July 2014

English, Mandarin, Dialects

What a surprise!

This weekend, I got a morale boost while reading the local news.  

I'm not that 2nd rate after all!

I do speak Singlish and can talk "male chicken" as well as any other loud-mouthed Singaporean. 

However, when the occasion calls for it, I can switch to Standard English - the kind spoken by our Ministers. 

It's not fun and games if you only speak Singlish. There's a invisible ceiling if you work in Corporate. But if you own your own company, then "Limpeh this, Limpeh that" works!

As for Mandarin, let's say I am having my 2nd renaissance. Have been reading the Chinese dailies since my return 2.5 years ago. Am proud to say I can speak Mandarin without having to use English words as substitutes. 4 years of painful adjustment in Shanghai helps.

There's a funny incident at NTUC when I just came back from Athens. We have to weigh the vegetables to get the price tag and the auntie there thought I was "Foreign Talent" when I spoke to her in Mandarin.

I had to switch to Hokkien to reassure her I am Singaporean. But a good wake up call. Need to switch back to Singapore accented Mandarin. I don't want to be one of those Singapore born and raised all their lives, study 3-4 years in London, suddenly come back with a fake accent. Who are we kidding?

I speak Teochew. I am Teochew. That's thanks to my maternal ah ma. Ah ma came from Mainland China before the war. Her Teochew is the real deal. 

I remember young that time when buying fishball noodle, the hawker was laughingly telling me that my ah ma's teochew is very "white"; very pure. That stuck in my mind.

I met a 70 plus Swatow Teochew gentlemen in Shanghai. He told me he understood 70% of my Singaporean Teochew; I was very pleased.

I speak Hokkien. That's because growing up in the 70s, its a English and Hokkien speaking world. HDB neighbourhood friends speak Hokkien, primary school classmates speak Hokkien, army mates speak Hokkien.

In Xiamen and Taiwan, my ability to converse in Hokkien came in mighty handy. There's immediate rapport and "kinship". Never mind I am a Teochew; it's close enough!

There's a funny incident where over one dinner in Xiamen, we had a friendly argument amongst 4 of us colleagues over a dinner dish - 1 Singaporean me, a Xiamen native, a Taiwanese expat working in Xiamen, and a Northern Chinese colleague from Qingdao. 

What is 土豆

To the Northern Chinese, it's potato.

To all us us Southern Chinese, it's peanuts (pronounce the above in Hokkien).

Of course I know in standard Mandarin peanut is 花生.

Without knowledge of Hokkien, I would not have sided with my Southern Chinese cousins. Imagine the irony if I had sided with the Northern Chinese. LOL! It's a  bit like American and British English or Bahasa Malayu and Bahasa Indonesia - we can tell where you came from the words you use.

And do you know during the Tang dynasty, the official court language spoken at that time is very similar to what is modern Hokkien? That's is why if you recite Tang poems in Hokkien, they rhyme better than in Mandarin. Try it!

So don't put Mandarin on too high a pedestal over other Chinese dialects. Dynasties come and go. You never know when the balance of power may swing back to Southern China...

I speak Cantonese albeit brokenly. At least I made the effort! Listen to comprehend I no problem. That's all thanks to all those Fong Bo Bo black and white movies and Man in the net HK serial dramas in the 70s.

My 5 months in Shekou, Shenzhen was the time where I had the opportunity to use Cantonese on a daily basis. Of course they laughed at my broken Cantonese. They also say I speak it with a heavy Teochew accented Cantonese. I am very happy; I am Teochew what!?

There's a elderly couple down the corridor from my flat. I've no clue how it started but they always converse with me in Cantonese whenever we meet at the lift or at the hawker centre. I think that's nice. I can reach out.

I know a bit of bazaar Malay.  A bit from my Malay neighbours, a bit from Army, and now learning from my Malay colleagues on the selling floor. Tried using Malay with the customers. They laugh, I laugh. Ice broken. I had fun!

After Malay I think I will go for either Thai or Japanese. It depends on where I get "lucky" first. Wink, wink.

Now imagine my good luck big daddy only introduced the primary 8 streaming thing a few years after I managed to scrap through primary 3 by the skin of my teeth. Streaming at primary 3!!!??? You got to be freaking kidding me!!!!!!!!

I don't mind the study a few more years thing as time is relative. So what if I take 8 years to finish primary school and I live healthily to 85? Would you be happier to finish graduate studies at 18 but can only live till 55? Same goes for the never ending race to get that promotion faster, to reach that financial freedom age quicker. Why the rush? You running out of time?

Opps! I digress...

Can you imagine someone up there in bureaucracy making a decision for me that it's to  my "best interest" to be Monolingual? (Can linguistics skills be determined by academic results?)

Take away the few things that I like and comfortable with?

Thank goodness Lady Luck had other plans for me....
Who knew decades later, compared to my kōhai 後輩 who are at best Bilingual, I am not so 2nd rate after all!

P.S.  To polyglots and those elite students who studied 3 languages in school during my time, please allow me to sing 1 hour in the spotlight for once. I know I am nothing compared to you all. Have a bit of compassion. Namaste.




  1. Hi SMOL

    Whatever it is , always remember when your roots are .

    Perhaps nowadays some of the people have more knowledge into "kistory " than their own local history .

  2. Small Time Investor,

    My roots extend beyond 09 August 1965 ;)

  3. Wow SMOL

    You are Multi-Lingualistic person and can speak any form of language when needed to the occasion!!!. Bravoooo....

    1. B,

      I'm a salesman. No talk; no sugar.

      My situation is not unusual in multicultural and multiracial Singapore.

      We have quite a few Indian and Malay friends that can speak powderful Hokkien and Mandarin too ;)

      It all depends on our attitude - mingle or only stick with our own kind.

      Plastic football at the HDB void decks is the perfect mingling place! We can even play with a table-tennis table right smack in the centre, never mind the many pillars!? LOL!

      Now I don't see young children playing at the void decks anymore...

  4. I learned my Hokkien from listening to ONG TOH telling story on the Redifusion. It 's a 1st class Hokkien. Do you agreed? Yet at times, i got problem trying to understand my late FIL who was from Hokkien (Angquay)-China. Even my wife at times trying hard the same.
    i suppose one dialect itself like Hokkien has many variations and accents; depending which part of the place or town in Hokkien of China. i wonder "Ong TOH's" version is it the main Hokkien dialect version or not?

    1. temperament,

      Yes, Rediffusion got Lee Dai Soh 李大傻 (Cantonese), Ng Chia Kheng 黄正经 (Teochew), Ong Toh 王道 (Hokkien) and Chong Soon Fat 张顺发 (Hakka) - one for each dialect group.

      Yup, for Teochew, we have Chaoyang Teochew that sounds different from "regular" Teochew.

      It's normal - people speak with different accents from different regions.

      Malaysian Federation Mandarin is distinctive from Singapore accented Mandarin ;)

      Dialects "spoken" by our broadcasters are Standard or Formal versions. We don't talk like that in everyday life ;)

      I think the dialects we speak in Singapore are colloquial or informal versions.

  5. The Japanese started importing Kanji and their "On" readings (native Japanese pronunciation for similar words is called "Kun") around the Tang Dynasty too. Which is why many "On' readings for Kanji actually sounded closer to Hokkien than their "putonghua" equivalent today.

    Still, there can be as many as 3-4 different kinds of "On" readings for a single Kanji due to different times they were adopted as part of compound words (imported during different dynasties in China) causing much grief for the Japanese language learners centuries later.

    1. Patty,

      In Korean, princess is pronounced similar to our Hokkien "gong zhu" I noticed.

      I'm glad I can read complex Chinese characters - all thanks to Jing Yong's novels and HK's Long Hu Men comics!

      Getting around in Tokyo was less daunting by reading the Kanji characters :)


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