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Just another reason to (re)connect with people

Just another reason to (re)connect with people



"It feels good to be able to speak Hainanese again."

A lady had told us when she paused in her tracks to make conversation. I was with my grandma – whose only means of communicating with others is via the Hainanese dialect – and parents. We were over at my cousin's new place and explaining to my grandma some of the features of the compound. 

When the lady heard us, she broke out in Hainanese to say hello. "It's very rare to find people who can speak Hainanese these days so when I overheard you all talking, I couldn't help myself," she said, her face I remember was one of genuine joy. 

At that moment, I felt a connection that I've never had. It strangely felt as though I got reunited with a distant relative. And our three-generation family continued talking to the friendly neighbour whom we had just met, for another good five minutes.

Hainanese is one of five major Chinese dialect sub-groups in Singapore; the rest being Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka. 

I grew up in a family where my maternal and paternal relatives are all Hainanese. I'm lucky that way because rather than having to pick up two dialects, I only had one to work with. I assimilated to the dialect fairly naturally as a result, instead of having to learn it. 

But this isn't about claiming bragging rights. If anything, it's more an observation of the decline in the literacy of Chinese dialects that I wished could be reversed. I lament the loss of a piece of our unique culture and that extra thread that connects us with people.


What do the figures say? Our Census of Population 2020 reported a mere 8.7% of our resident population who use Chinese dialects as their most frequently spoken language at home. This is down from 14.3% in 2010. These figures, I feel, are an accurate reflection of reality. 

Even as I look around me, many of my peers can comprehend but aren't able to speak their family dialects. This isn't all that surprising since we barely have to use dialects to get on with our daily lives. 

It's a natural outcome yet a pity. The relevance of dialects will continue to dwindle as generations pass, especially in light of higher literacy levels and as English increasingly dominates as the main mode of communication in Singaporean homes. 

And this brings us back to the heart of the matter. Dialects, just like any language, are a means for us to get through to other people. For instance, for me, Hainanese is how I connect with my grandma. She is my reason for why I still hold on dearly to the dialect.

But the lady with whom we had crossed paths was a timely reminder for me. There are still communities of people who, though may not communicate mainly via a Chinese dialect, have fond memories associated with speaking it. These could be from the carefree days in their childhood, or from a time when they connected with a fellow dialect-speaker. 

I know for one that I will continue to embrace my Hainanese-ness for as long as there's someone out there who speaks the dialect. 

This Easter holiday, as we take time to rest and celebrate, let's also not forget to find reasons, and to resuscitate the connections that tie us to people.

– Denise

Photos from: Singstat, Klook

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hahaha. my old neighbour used to be Hainanese, i used to say li ho when i see them when waiting for the lift. 


But now cannot anyhow say liho liao. Later they drag me go buy bubble tea!  

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