GEORGE TOWN, Aug 23 — The Hokkien language has 25 million speakers around the world and yet it is heading towards extinction.
Hokkien Language Association of Penang President Sim Tze Wei said Southern Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew are major languages with many speakers.
“These are actual languages with their own literature... there are books written in these languages so these are not dialects,” he said.
He pointed out that the 25 million Hokkien speakers in the world are two and a half times more than the population of Sweden.
“Despite this, the Swedish language is not facing a threat of extinction but Hokkien is as more speakers abandon it for Mandarin,” he told Malay Mail recently.
Many ethnic Chinese, particularly in Malaysia, have abandoned their mother tongue and switched to Mandarin, a language pushed by Mandarin educationists as mother tongue.
In pushing for all ethnic Chinese to embrace Mandarin, Southern Chinese languages were labelled as “dialects” and considered inferior.
In an attempt to revive the use of these languages among the different sub-ethnic Chinese groups, the Hokkien Language Association of Penang is holding an exhibition chronicling the slow decline of Southern Chinese languages.
Sim said the decline started more than a century ago when the Northern Chinese language, Mandarin, was adopted as part of China’s Han nationalism ideology.
Prior to this, Sim said most of the ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia spoke Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese.
“Those living in the coastal areas from Perlis down to Johor mainly spoke Hokkien and Teochew while those living further inland, such as Ipoh, spoke Cantonese and Hakka,” he said.
He said each of these different sub-ethnic groups have different cultures and spoke different languages and were considered as different ethnic groups.
He said even schools started by some of the clans in Penang taught pupils in Hokkien and Cantonese at that time.
“There used to be a school here in Cheah Kongsi in the 1920s where teachers taught mainly in Hokkien with a bit of Mandarin as the adoption of Mandarin had started in the 1900s,” he said.
He said before long Mandarin was fully adopted as the main medium of instruction in all schools in China and also adopted by vernacular schools in Malaysia.
Soon, Mandarin was labelled as the “mother tongue” of all ethnic Chinese while their actual mother tongues were cast aside.
The Hokkien Language Association of Penang has been trying to revive the Hokkien language as a proper language instead of being relegated to a dialect for many years.
Sim said they dug up old books and documents including those written using Classical Chinese characters but were in Hokkien to prove that it is a language on its own and not a dialect of Mandarin.
It was this premise that led to the exhibition titled “The Death and Life of Hokkien: How an ideology changed your identity and wiped out your language” held at the Cheah Kongsi here.
He said the first step in changing people’s perception of their own mother tongue is to educate them on the origins of their language and make them realise that Mandarin is not their actual mother tongue.
“We want people to know that these are languages, not dialects, and from here, maybe people will realise that they have mistaken their mother tongue and choose to speak Hokkien in their daily life once again,” he said.
He urged vernacular schools and teachers in these schools to reinstate the status of their real mother tongues, whether it is Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka or Cantonese, instead of teaching only in Mandarin.
“Chinese vernacular schools are the prime movers of the linguistic loss, they forced entire generations to be ashamed of their own mother tongue which is in turn driving the languages into decline and death,” he said.
He pointed out that many ethnic Chinese believed in the misconception that Southern Chinese languages are dialects and therefore the languages spoken only by commoners while Mandarin is the “real” Chinese language of the elite and educated.
“Students of other ethnicities in a vernacular school can speak their mother tongue such as Malay or Tamil in school but ethnic Chinese are not allowed to use their own mother tongue because the teachers saw Southern Chinese languages as ‘dialects’ or ‘corrupt’ version of Mandarin,” he said.
“It is only when the schools take the lead to teach in Southern Chinese, that parents will follow suit and from there, we will be able to keep these languages alive,” he said.
The exhibition, at Cheah Kongsi along Armenian Street, is open to the public daily until the end of October. Find out more about the origins of Hokkien at the association’s website speakhokkien.org.
* A previous version of this story contained errors which have since been corrected.
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