By Clarissa Oon
PHARMACEUTICAL researcher Rachael Ang, 27, spends her Thursday evenings struggling to master Teochew. She barely speaks a word of it.
Her 80-year-old grandmother, on the other hand, lives, breathes and thinks in the Chinese dialect.
Ms Ang is among a growing number of young Chinese Singaporeans striving to add to their command of English and Mandarin by attending dialect classes conducted by several Chinese clan associations.
Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, which offers classes in basic and intermediate Teochew, estimates that about 300 people have joined the classes since they were started six years ago.
Cantonese, Shanghainese and Hokkien classes are also available. The first two are offered by the Kwangtung Hui Kuan and Sam Kiang Huay Kwan respectively, while the Hokkien Huay Kuan conducts ad hoc Hokkien classes and workshops for interested parties.
Instructors estimate that at least 600 students have signed up for Cantonese and Shanghainese classes since they were started six to nine years ago.
'My Mandarin is good enough for me to have worked in China and Taiwan,' said Ms Ang. However, she finds it 'a bit embarrassing' that she cannot speak her family dialect of Teochew.
'I'm taking this class to communicate better with my grandmother and to connect with my roots. Right now I can only ask her 'Have you eaten?' in Teochew,' she added.
For the 12-week class, she and 11 other students wrap their tongues around new pronunciation and vocabulary by reading aloud Teochew conversations written in Chinese characters. The action takes place every Thursday evening in a brightly lit classroom at the Poit Ip Huay Kuan's building in Tank Road.
Such dialect classes are a symbol of profound changes in the language environment here due to the bilingual education policy and Speak Mandarin Campaign, observed clan insiders.
Clan associations, which used to offer Mandarin lessons when the campaign kicked in 30 years ago, are now teaching dialects to a younger generation that can already speak Mandarin but was never really exposed to dialects.
Dialect classes offered by the clans can never be a substitute for Mandarin as it is taught in schools, but are meant to complement that foundation, said Poit Ip Huay Kuan chairman Goh Nam Siang.
Similarly, for Hokkien classes conducted by the Hokkien Huay Kuan, 'our aim is to preserve and advance Chinese culture and not solely Hokkien culture', said Mr Chan Hock Keng, the chairman of its general affairs committee.
Dialects are not simply oral communication. They use the same Chinese characters as Mandarin, but have significant differences in vocabulary, said freelance Chinese teacher Lim Ngian Tiong, 58, who teaches Teochew at the Poit Ip Huay Kuan.
He gave the example of the Teochew word kua kiah (walk in a slow and leisurely manner), which comes from gu hanyu (old Chinese). The same word has disappeared from modern Mandarin, which uses man zou (walk slowly) instead.
Some of his students are not of Teochew ancestry, but want to pick up the dialect for professional reasons.
Mr Chen Jian, who teaches at Sam Kiang Huay Kwan, said it drew up to 30 students per class when it began offering three-month Shanghainese courses from 2000. But the last class at the end of last year drew only six people, which he attributed to the recession affecting business opportunities with China.
However, the urge to xun gen or explore one's roots appears to be recession- proof. Most of Mr Lim's students are paying $80 to master basic Teochew for that reason.
'My grandmother can speak only Teochew, and I thought it was about time I learnt it,' said English-language teacher Yeo Chui Leng, who is in her mid-20s.
'So I googled 'Teochew lesson' and this is what I found.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.