Image by Ashbel Chioh for Yale-NUS College.
By Kelly Ng
On 16 September 2019, a small group of approximately 15 local and international Yale-NUS College students gathered in a classroom for a special class unlike any other in their regular curriculum – a Hokkien dialect workshop. Conducted by MDT Consultancy, the only People’s Association-accredited dialect trainer in Singapore, the workshop taught students the basics of Singapore’s most widely spoken Chinese dialect. From colours to numbers, greetings, and popular food names, students left the class that day with newfound appreciation of a different language.
The workshop was organised by a Yale-NUS student volunteering group called Community Impact (ComPact) and sponsored by the Dean of Students Office. ComPact is a fully student-run group that aims to help Yale-NUS students plug into the wider Singaporean community through off-campus volunteering opportunities. It regularly rolls out different volunteering opportunities to help a wide range of beneficiaries, from migrant workers to lower-income students and the elderly. However, this particular skills-based workshop was something novel for the organisation.
“I think this idea of skills-based volunteerism came into our minds as we were trying to re-evaluate ComPact’s relevance in the school community. As many similar student organisations also offer specialised volunteering opportunities, we decided to explore skills-based volunteerism in order to differentiate and propose a more meaningful way of volunteering,” said Mok Wei Tong (Class of 2022), president of ComPact.
A dialect workshop was doubly beneficial since it equipped volunteers with the necessary language skills to communicate with dialect-speaking elderly, one of ComPact’s common beneficiaries. In September, the organisation collaborated with Mummy Yummy, a vegetarian food stall, to distribute meals to low-income elderly around Toa Payoh.
During the trip, Wei Tong commented that beyond just simply providing the elderly with meals, both the local and international student volunteers were able to engage the elderly by having small and interesting conversations.
Additionally, beyond empowering student volunteers with better linguistic means to communicate with the elderly beneficiaries, the workshop also broadened their knowledge of the importance of dialect in Singapore’s context.
For example, one of the student volunteers, Ryan Siew (Class of 2023), signed up for the workshop as he felt that it would be a useful supplementary class for the volunteering project with Mummy Yummy.
However, he left with a different takeaway. “I learnt that de-emphasising Chinese dialects contributes to the marginalisation of the Chinese older generations in Singapore since many of them do not speak the official languages of English or Mandarin,” he shared.
After viewing the dialect issue through the lens of marginalisation, which was something which he had never thought of before, Ryan believes that one crucial way that Singaporeans can understand and support the dialect-speaking elderly population is to simply learn dialects. In the same vein, he also expressed profound interest in learning Cantonese, his own family dialect.
“Even though my relatives can speak in Mandarin or English during gatherings, Cantonese is still the language that they grew up with and which they hold closest to their heart. If I want to bond more with them, it would be best that I brush up on my Cantonese,” he said.
Echoing his thoughts, another participant, Elizabeth Koh (Class of 2023), decided to sign up for the workshop so that she too, could have a better grasp of Hokkien to communicate with her grandparents.
“I was really fascinated by how Hokkien overlaps with so many languages, like Japanese, Korean and Malay. Not only did it make easier for me when I tried conversing for class practice, but it also enlightened me on how people, cultures and languages migrate and intertwine with one another until it becomes difficult to find the origin of a language,” Elizabeth said.
Going forward, both Ryan and Elizabeth are excited to take their dialect-learning capabilities further. Ryan previously expressed feeling a mental block when interacting with the elderly. But after having taken his first baby steps towards improving his command in Hokkien, he now feels “more eager to take on volunteering projects with the elderly.” Likewise, Elizabeth has a personal interest in learning more dialects and is looking forward to more dialect workshops, especially ones that cover the less commonly spoken dialects in Singapore.
Although there are no concrete plans for similar upcoming dialect workshops, Wei Tong shared that ComPact is “definitely keen on developing further skills-based volunteering opportunities.” For the present time, it will focus on rolling out community projects that raise awareness of the different underprivileged communities in Singapore.