Lim Ngian Tiong: Reviving Teochew language starts at home

Lim Ngian Tiong, Nigel, is a veteran Teochew language radio newscaster and teacher in Singapore. He has been actively spreading Teochew language and culture through the radio, opera stage and classroom for half a century.

Coincidently 2023 marks Lim Ngian Tiong’s 50th anniversary as a Teochew language radio newscaster and his 20th year as a language teacher. Lim Ngian Tiong has also served as language instructor and event host for the annual "Lai Bia Teochew Ue" (來拼潮州話) quiz competition for Teochew language enthusiasts in Singapore since 2020.

The Teochew Store had the pleasure of speaking with Lim Ngian Tiong recently to learn about his journey in promoting Teochew language and culture, and to pick up some tips for young people interested in learning to speak Teochew.


Image 1: Lim Nigan Tiong, Nigel ( 林仰忠):  Singapore's veteran Teochew language radio newscaster and teacher. 


The Teochew Store (TTS): You are a seasoned Teochew language radio newscaster in Singapore. What led you to teach Teochew language in the classroom?

Lim Ngian Tiong (LNT): In the early 2000s an elderly gentleman at the Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, Mr. Tay Jit Seng, regularly organised lantern riddle contests at the association’s events, which involved a lot of Teochew terms. This led to a suggestion for the opening of classes to help everyone learn the Teochew language in greater depth. Mr Tay started the first class at the association in 2003. The initial students were mostly middle-aged Teochew language speakers. It was only later on that more and more beginners signed up for the classes. As I was familiar with Mandarin, Mr. Tay invited me and another teacher to be his assistants. The three of us conducted the classes together. Mr Tay retired about five years later, while the other teacher passed away. This left me as the only one teaching the classes until today.


TTS: What motivates you to teach the Teochew language from 2003 until now? Are there any challenges that you faced during this process?

LNT: Besides the continued support of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, I have a group of five to six students who have been following my classes through these 20 years. I am able to come so far because of the mutual support and encouragement that we have given to one another.

I faced three main challenges:

The first is managing the tempo of the lessons. Even though we have classes at different levels, there is still a disparity between the language abilities of students in every class. If the tempo and pace of the lessons are too fast, students with weak foundations will struggle to catch up. They may subsequently drop out of the class.

The second is deciding on the vocabulary to teach in class. If the expressions taught are too simple, students with a strong command of Teochew may feel bored. Different students also have different learning objectives. For example, some students work in the medical field and they wish to learn terms related to their profession. But other students may feel that these terms are unimportant.

The third is the medium of teaching. Some students prefer that I teach the class using only Teochew. Others who do not even speak Mandarin or read Chinese, require the use of English to help them. Although I do not have a formal background as a classroom teacher, I have been expanding my knowledge of the Teochew language and improving my teaching methods with time to meet my students’ different needs. For me, this is both a challenge and a source of motivation.


TTS: English and Mandarin are now the main languages used in Singapore. Given this social environment, what do you think is the purpose for passing on the Teochew language? Where do you see the value of speaking Teochew?

LNT: English and Mandarin have become the primary languages of communication for the Chinese in Singapore. This is a fact that we must accept. However, this does not mean that the Teochew language has lost its meaning and value. Some people believe mastering Mandarin alone is enough to open doors to opportunities in China. The reality, if we carefully observe, is that even many mainland Chinese themselves do not speak standard Putonghua, and the people from different localities still prefer to speak their hometown vernaculars. Knowing Teochew, Cantonese or some other local vernacular will actually be to your advantage in doing business or living in China.

I once met two Teochew businessmen who usually spoke English, but they immediately began using Teochew to communicate when they saw each other. The reason for this is that our language is embedded with strong emotions that connect us to our "village". In the 1970s, the Chinese of different origins in Singapore spoke their respective vernaculars but were yet able to communicate with one another. Learning to speak Teochew does not prevent us from learning English or Mandarin. On the contrary, it gives us an invisible advantage.


TTS: Having promoted Teochew language and culture for half a century, what have you gained on a personal level?

LNT: My greatest gain is getting a “grasp” of the Chinese culture. Before teaching the Teochew language, I was an “outsider” with limited knowledge of the Chinese culture. At very most I had only a foot in the door. Through the language, I discovered the breadth and depth of the Chinese culture and this pushed me to keep on exploring and learning.

Another reward for me is being able to lead more people to realise that our Chinese vernaculars are not "accessories", but cultural treasures accumulated through many generations. Through the Teochew language, we cannot only learn the wisdom and thinking of our ancestors but also about other languages and forms of culture. A student once remarked that after learning Teochew, he discovered some of our expressions are similar to those in the Japanese and Korean languages.

Interesting finds such as this can inspire all of us to find out more about the history and development of other languages and develop a more inclusive outlook towards the world.


Image 2: Lim Nigan Tiong teaching Teochew language to a class of young students. (Image source:


TTS: Presently you are the only teacher conducting Teochew language classes at the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan. Do you have a plan to groom any successors?

LNT: I have several students who have followed me for many years. They are highly fluent in Teochew and are competent at teaching Teochew at the beginner level. If there is a chance, I would wish for them to be involved in the broadcast of Teochew language news on the radio. However, these are dependent on the aspirations of the students as well as the Singapore government’s policy towards Chinese vernaculars.

Technology and the Internet are important in strengthening the spread of the Teochew language. The young are highly able in using these. I hope more young people will join the ranks towards passing on the Teochew language and inject more strength and vitality into our language.


TTS: The young generations of Teochews differ greatly from our forebears in not only the language we speak but also in thinking and living habits. Some younger Teochews wish to reconnect with their Teochew language and identity but do not know where to start. What advice can you offer to those of us facing this predicament?

LNT: Attending Teochew language classes is only the first step. The key to gaining a command of the Teochew language is to practice it in daily life. This is especially so for learners with a weak foundation. If you do not revisit the things you have learned in a timely manner, you will quickly forget them. Only through timely revision and practice can the language be etched in your mind.

Many young people complain about the lack of an environment to practice speaking Teochew. In Singapore, we can be bold and use Teochew to communicate with speakers of other Chinese vernaculars. For example, you can chat with someone who speaks Hokkien, which is highly similar to Teochew and is mutually intelligible. We do not need to be fixated on speaking “pure” Teochew. Even the local Teochews in China’s Swatow speak with a variety of accents.

Languages evolve constantly. The ultimate goal of learning a language in the real world should be to be able to put it to use.


TTS: The older generation Teochews speak the language fluently, but this is not the case for many young parents of today. In what ways can grandparents and parents help our children develop an interest to learn Teochew in daily life?

LNT: I suggest parents do not leave the teaching of Teochew to their children to the elders or others, even if they are not strong in the language. Parents need to be brave in actively using Teochew to communicate with other family members. If your Teochew is not accurate, try using English or Mandarin to explain a second time to your child what you wish to express. Ask grandpa or grandma to correct you. In this way, the level of Teochew of both parents and children will slowly, but surely, improve.

Take, for example, my children. I always used Teochew to speak to them since they were young. They were not used to it at first and always replied to me in English. I did not mind and continued talking to them in Teochew. Occasionally, I would pretend not to comprehend their English and ask them to explain what they said in Teochew. If they did not express themselves accurately, I would rephrase what they said (in proper Teochew). Parents only need to create opportunities at home for their children to speak Teochew and their command of the language will naturally get better.

The Singapore government ran a campaign in the early 1980s urging Singaporeans to “Speak more Mandarin and less dialects”.  While many non-Mandarin Chinese programmes on television and radio were taken off the air, the government did not prohibit the speaking of our vernaculars. Unfortunately, many parents were overly enthusiastic in heeding the call and they chose to stop speaking their vernaculars at home and used Mandarin and even broken English instead. The younger ones, striving to keep up with the times, also started to pick up English and Mandarin. As a result, fewer and fewer Chinese can speak the vernaculars.

It is fair to say the decline of the Teochew language in Singapore began at home. Thus, the revival of the Teochew language also needs to start at home.


Watch the 2022 Final of "Lai Bia Teochew Ue" (來拼潮州話) Teochew language quiz competition hosted by Lim Ngian Tiong.


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