A few weeks ago we shared about a Grandfather’s Effort to Pass on Our Language Heritage. For Brandon Seah (a.k.a. Ah Boon), a 30-something Singaporean, it was his grandmother’s conversations with him as a child that planted the seeds for him to desire to learn Teochew properly “someday”. Today, Brandon runs Learn Teochew, an extensive online guide for “heritage speakers”, who have “learned some of the language from their family but who have never studied it formally, and who want to improve their understanding of the language”.
The Teochew Store caught up with Brandon recently to find out more about his project:
The Teochew Store (TTS): The Learn Teochew site contains a lot of information about the Teochew language. When and how was the idea for Learn Teochew conceived?
Brandon Seah (BS): The site started off as my own study notes for Teochew. When I started looking seriously into learning Teochew about three to four years ago, I could not find many learning materials. One of the valuable resources I found online at the time was your Teochew Store website, including the free books that you have posted. This helped get me started and as I gathered more notes, I organised them and realised that I could also share this online to help other learners.
At the moment I’m not actively expanding the website, but there are many other Teochew language projects that people can participate in. I’ve gotten to know people who are working on various community projects to develop Teochew resources through the Gaginang group on Discord (https://discord.gg/uuA6eAUaNc) (Discord is a chat and message board app). If people are interested in practising their Teochew online and finding ways to help out, I think this is a good place to start!
The Teochew Store (TTS): Many young Teochews nowadays hardly speak Teochew, but know at least a few lines, such as “how are you” (汝好孬) or “have you eaten” (汝食饱未). Do you consider them “heritage speakers”? How do they make use of your Learn Teochew site and its other social media platforms to improve their Teochew?
Brandon Seah (BS): Yes, I would consider anyone with childhood exposure to the language to be a heritage speaker. Even if they can only say a few phrases, they usually can passively understand much more and have a lot more locked away in their memory than they realise. That was also my own experience at the beginning of my learning journey. I often found myself thinking “I’ve heard that phrase before” or “this sentence structure seems familiar to me” when reading or listening, even though I couldn’t actively remember it before.
I think the most effective way for heritage speakers to learn Teochew is to learn Pêng’im first. This is a phonetic spelling system using roman letters, much like Hanyu Pinyin for Mandarin. Pêng’im will enable you to write down Teochew even if you don’t know the Chinese characters and help you remember how to pronounce them. It is the gateway to being able to use most modern Teochew dictionaries, including online ones like mogher.com.
My website has a short guide to Pêng’im as well as videos teaching Pêng’im and Teochew phonetics. The YouTube videos are subtitled in English and Mandarin, just click on the “CC” button in the YouTube player.
Then, when you want to move on from simple words and phrases to more complex structures, like asking questions or using conjunctions, you can use the language guide section of the website for a quick reference and overview:
I have put together a small collection of Teochew readings with Pêng’im, characters, and English translation, such as stories, speeches, and folk songs. The aim is to help learners get used to reading Pêng’im, and also learn some new vocabulary and grammar along the way. Some are taken from actual published texts, while others were transcribed from videos or sound recordings.
Some learners may be curious about Teochew opera, but find it difficult because of the language, which is also quite different from everyday colloquial Teochew. They can check out the companion website on Teochew opera, which has excerpts from two well-known operas, transcribed into Pêng’im and translated into English.
Just be aware that other sites and apps may use different Pêng’im systems. For example, the WhatTCSay3 dictionary app uses Gaginang Peng’im, which is similar enough to the standard Teochew Pêng’im that you can adapt to it quickly, and it also has sound recordings for many entries.
The Teochew Store (TTS): How do your friends react when you tell them about you spending time, effort and money promoting what some people still perceive as a “dying Chinese dialect”?
Brandon Seah (BS): The reaction has been largely positive. Most of us who have grown up in Singapore are aware of this language barrier between generations. Public service announcements in “dialects” aimed at senior citizens during the pandemic also brought more attention to this topic. For people of my generation, these are the voices and accents of our childhood, so there is also a nostalgia value especially as many of us start to have children of our own. Of course, not everyone has the time and inclination to study it seriously, but we can encourage this interest and make the resources freely available.
The Teochew Store (TTS): Has there been a moment when you felt, “why bother, nobody cares”?
Brandon Seah (BS): No, I have not experienced that, and I think it is because I’m learning Teochew for my own interest, so I am motivated by what I myself want to learn. I’ve also realised that there are plenty of people who do care and who are interested in Teochew and other “dialects”, which is also encouraging.
However, I have had to adjust the time I spend on this project. In the beginning, I aimed to post regularly on social media on a weekly to monthly basis. This helped build up an audience but the pace was not sustainable. Now, the time that I allocate to Teochew is mostly spent on long term resource-building projects.
The Teochew Store (TTS): In your opinion, in what other ways can communication technology, such as social media or apps, be better harnessed to help the young learn the language? How can the elder folks get involved?
Brandon Seah (BS): The best way to learn a language is to use it regularly and to find a community to use it with. Dictionary apps can help, and also online chat groups where people practice their Teochew. There are actually lots of Teochew media online that people can dive into, some of which were highlighted in your interview with Juyee.[Read interview here: Learn Diosua Ue with Juyee 和如意學潮汕話]
One innovative example is the Ue-Dou game, an adaptation of the popular Wordle game, by the same developer behind the WhatTcSay3 app. It’s a fun way to test your Teochew vocabulary, although I find it can be quite difficult!
Elder folks can get involved in many ways. Some are tech-savvy and build their own websites or have their own YouTube channels. But something as simple as recording a Teochew nursery rhyme or stories about the past and sharing it with the younger generation can be helpful and meaningful.
The Teochew Store (TTS): You are a member of the family of Seah Eu Chin, who was arguably the most prominent Teochew figure in Singapore in the 19th century. Was a lot of Teochew spoken at home when you were growing up? How did this influence you?
Brandon Seah (BS): Growing up, I mostly used English and Mandarin with my parents and relatives. However my maternal grandmother only speaks Teochew and most of my exposure to Teochew was from her. Other heritage speakers will recognise this: when listening to her I could only understand the “easy parts”. I must have missed out on so many details and stories. At the time I thought this was normal and just the way that things are, so I hope that young people today who have difficulty communicating with their elder relatives will recognise that they can actively do something about it and that my website may be helpful to them.