The Tok and Teo families are a model of traditional harmony, with three generations gathered under one roof, enjoying each other’s company over slices of fruit and cups of tea on a Saturday afternoon in Singapore.
There is only one problem: The youngest and oldest generations can barely communicate with each other.
Lavell, 7, speaks fluent English and a smattering of Mandarin Chinese, while her grandmother, Law Ngoh Kiaw, prefers the Hokkien dialect of her ancestors’ home in southeastern China. That leaves grandmother and granddaughter looking together at a doll house on the floor, unable to exchange more than a few words.
“She can’t speak our Hokkien,” Mrs. Law said with a sigh, “and doesn’t really want to speak Mandarin, either.”
This struggle to communicate within families is one of the painful effects of the Singapore government’s large-scale, decades-long effort at linguistic engineering.
Starting with a series of measures in the late 1970s, the leaders of this city-state effectively banned Chinese dialects, the mother tongues of about three-quarters of its citizens, in favor of Mandarin, China’s official language.
A few years later, even Mandarin usage was cut back in favor of the global language of commerce, English.
Read more: NY Times