The more one learns dialect words, the less space there is for Mandarin words or English words, or multiplication tables or formulas in mathematics, physics or chemistry.”

– (Speech on ‘Mandarin must replace dialects as the mother tongue’ on 25 October 1981, by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce 1991)


Do any of you know how to speak dialect? Even if you do, do you know how to speak them fluently? The founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew discouraged the usage of dialects as he felt that learning dialects would minimize the space in the brain to learn English, Chinese and Mathematics. After the “Speak Good Mandarin” campaign, his point was brought across, and the usage of dialects decreased rapidly. Although many parents do know how to speak dialect, they hardly use it in front of their children.


There is a huge variety of dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and so on. Although Mr Lee Kuan Yew discouraged Singaporeans from speaking dialects, I feel that learning dialect has its benefits. For instance, learning dialects can patch up the ever growing communication gap between the young and the elderly. The older generation of Singapore grew up speaking dialect, some of them do not know how to speak English. This creates frustration between the 2 generations for they are not able to understand each other. In some situations, the confusion will lead to misunderstandings, creating tensed relationships between a grandparent and grandchild. If only we knew how to speak dialect, wouldn’t it be great to hold an actual conversation with your loved one? I believe that learning how to speak dialect will strengthen family bonds.


Dialects arrived in the early days of Singapore when the settlers arrived on our island’s shores to make a living. It is imprinted deep into our history and when a person recalls the past with its constant usage of dialect, they feel a sense of belonging. It would be a shame for such an important part of our history should go extinct. Without dialects, we probably wouldn’t have the Singapore that we have today. I feel that dialects are imprinted deep into our history and we shouldn’t let something so significant go missing. It would be as though a part of Singapore died.


Even though I agree that we shouldn’t let dialects die out, I am not saying that we should make learning dialects part of our main curriculum. For those who truly want to learn dialects, I feel that the Ministry of Education should provide an additional course for it. It would be an optional course that is similar to learning 3rd languages.


With so many dialects, I feel that it would be an interesting to learn them with their rich history and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with mastering it. Surprisingly, it is not the elderly who are trying to bring back dialects, but the younger generation. They object to letting this colourful part of our history dying out and have started taking the initiative to bring them back. Some create online tutorial videos on learning the language while others try to communicate with their grandparents in dialects as much as they can.


Although dialects are on the brink of extinction, I am sure that we can bring them back with enough effort. Dialects should stay and we should not let any campaigns or opinions take them away from us.

Rachel Goh



The Death of Dialects in Singapore




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