Teochew for English Speakers – a Grandfather’s Effort to Pass on Our Language Heritage

Meet Mr Tan Peng Boon, a 78-year-old grandfather in Singapore. He is a Teochew and nine years ago he created a website with the goal of enabling English-speakers to pick up the Teochew language. Remarkably, the retiree took upon himself to learn how to build a website in order to realise this.

The Teochew Store recently spoke with Mr Tan to find out the story behind his passion to keep alive his Teochew heritage and his “Teochew for English Speakers” website.

“Teochew for English Speakers” can be accessed from http://gateways.sg/~TeochewEnglish/index.asp.


The Teochew Store (TTS): Can you share a little with us about yourself and your Teochew language heritage?

Tan Peng Boon (TPB): Both my parents were Teochews who came to Singapore from Teochew Prefecture, Guangdong Province, China in the 1930s.  My wife, also a Teochew, and I were born in Singapore.  My neighbours were Teochews, so I grew up speaking only Teochew and a little English since my wife and I attended English medium school.  Even in secondary school I spoke to my classmates in Teochew. 

I did not speak much English until I started working after I completed my O-Levels. I can hardly speak other languages or dialects, although I understand Hokkien, Mandarin and some Malay.


TTS: What prompted you set up the “Teochew for English Speakers” website in 2009? What motivates you in carrying on maintaining the website through these years? 

TPB: When the Singapore government began to promote Mandarin over the other forms of spoken Chinese [since 1979], my children grew up speaking English, some Mandarin and limited Teochew. I knew that, without my effort, my grandchildren (the first two were born in 2002) would be hardly able to speak or understand Teochew. I noticed that the Teochew Singaporeans of my generation who were educated in Chinese medium schools could speak much better Teochew than those who went to English medium schools. Since my grandchildren attend English medium schools, as did everyone else in our family, I decided to develop a Teochew website for English speakers.

My objective was to provide some knowledge of the Teochew language, Teochew Prefecture and Teochew culture for Teochew English speakers around the world.


TTS: What were some of the challenges you faced in setting up “Teochew for English Speakers”?

TPB: There were two key challenges: setting up a website and adopting a form of Romanised Teochew that can be easily read by English speakers who do not have good command of written Chinese. 

As regards to the first challenge, I attended two courses in website design and website authoring. Fortunately my youngest brother is well-versed in HTML language and he was able to help me.

As for the second challenge, I could not find any suitable Romanised Teochew system that English speakers can readily make sense of.  In the existing Romanised Teochew systems, there are some problems, such as:

  • B, c, d, g, ng and r are pronounced differently from English pronunciation;
  • There are either no tonal system or the tonal systems are too difficult to understand or remember, even for people who know the hanyu pinyin;
  • They do not show tone change, even though there are many tone changes in Teochew. Anyone using these Romanised systems would be pronouncing in the wrong tone where there are tone changes;
  • There are either no tone indicator or the tone indicators are too difficult to type, making their usage impractical;
  • There are either no nasal indicator or using “n” as nasal indicator, which leads to wrong pronunciation by English Speakers. For example the nasal form of “sua” (sand) is written as “suan” which sounds as “diamond” to Teochew English speakers, although “suan” is meant to be the nasal form of “sua”, meaning “hill”. (For details, see http://gateways.sg/~TeochewEnglish/Romanised%20Teochew%20Systems.asp)

Fortunately I understand phonetics and it was not difficult for me to set up my system of Romanised Teochew. My system of Romanised Teochew is easy to understand, even by non-Teochews. For example a Caucasian wrote to me to express that his Teochew daughter-in-law could understand him when he read my Romanised Teochew Nursery Rhymes to her.

Another challenge is how to ensure that my Teochew website survives me when I am gone.Also, I am reluctant to upgrade to https website because this requires yearly payment.  Who is going to make the payments after I am gone?  I shall be 78 years old this year.  I am looking into migrating to a free Google, Microsoft or Yahoo website.  I have to look for a suitable free website because a paying website will be gone soon after my passing. The downside of using a free websites would be that it would be more difficult to set up my website, since I would not be able to use website authoring tools such as Dreamweaver.


TTS: What are the key highlights of the website ?

TPB: My website is quite comprehensive, covering

  • Teochew Prefecture (including the old 8 districts),
  • Teochew People,
  • my system of Romanised Teochew (including tonal system, tone change and nasal indicator),
  • Teochew Words & Phrases (Numbers, Order/Position, Relatives, Non-Relatives, Pronouns Related, Measure Words, Clothing & Footwear, Food & Drinks Related, Parts of the Body and Common Phrases),
  • Teochew Sayings,
  • Teochew Nursery Rhymes, including my grandchildren reciting them, as well as in Romanised Teochew, with direct and proper translation (see example video below of a lively recitation of “A Pear Tree on the Hilltop”) and
  • Sightsee Teochew Prefecture (from my later visits in 2005 and 2011). 

If I find time, I may add on information on Teochew weddings and funerals as well as how to make png kueh (飯粿) in future. I also have on YouTube several related videos, mainly Teochew Nursery Rhymes. I also hope to convert my photo slides on Sightsee Teochew Prefecture to videos and upload them on YouTube.


TTS: We see that the counter on your website shows that it has accumulated over 300,000 hits! What are some of the feedback you have received from readers?

TPB: I have readers contacting me.  They are mainly Teochews living in Europe and USA, and a few Caucasians.  All of them complimented my website.  Many liked the Teochew Nursery Rhymes.  A few asked for translation of my Teochew Nursery Rhymes to written Mandarin. I explained that there are some Teochew words which do not have Mandarin version. For example, the word for "wife " in Teochew is bou(𡚸), but in Mandarin it is (妻) which is read chi3 in Teochew.  Another example, "eat" is chī (吃) in Mandarin but Teochews normally say ziad(食), meaning "consume"). The Teochew expression for 吃 (g`erg) is seldom used. One person even asked me to include cartoons at my website, but I told him that this is beyond my abilities.

Strangely only a few Singaporeans wrote to me. I presume my website is not well-known in Singapore. I had written to many Teochew huay kuans (clan associations) in Singapore to request them to add a web-link to my website on theirs, but I have not received any response.


TTS: What is your view on the future of the Teochew language?

TPB: I believe that it is only a matter of time that Teochew will be a forgotten language, studied only by anthropologists. During my visit to Teochew Prefecture in 2011, I observed many young Teochews spoke Teochew mixed with Mandarin. 

I also noticed that an invited speaker from Teochew Prefecture to a Teochew huay kuan function in Singapore speaking in Mandarin instead of Teochew!  Likewise I have seen YouTube videos of invited speakers at Teochew opera functions in Swatow (Shantou) speaking in Mandarin! Maybe the Teochew language will not be used in daily life much longer and it will disappear in a few generations even in China.

[TTS comment: The use of Mandarin has proliferated in the Teochew region in China since the 1980s, especially in schools and official functions, just as the use of English and other “national” languages have penetrated the lives of overseas Teochews. However we can be heartened to know that many Teochews - old and young, inside and outside China - are now actively responding to this trend by promoting and keeping alive the language through videos, songs, chats and social activities!]


TTS: Do you have any tips for grandparents and young parents wishing to transmit the Teochew language, values and culture to their children?

TPB: Start by getting children to watch and recite Teochew Nursery Rhymes when they are a few years old.  Once they reach school-going age, they won’t have time to learn Teochew Nursery Rhymes or other aspects of Teochew language. Young children learn best through nursery rhymes. 

My “Learn” version of Teochew Nursery Rhyme videos will help children pick up spoken Teochew and even Romanised Teochew. Parents or grandparents can pause at each video frame to read the Romanised lines, “direct translation” lines and “proper translation” lines in the videos to them. Subsequently introduce the kids to the section of my website on “Teochew words and phrases”, then to other sections of my website.

My eldest grandson started watching Teochew DVDs when he was a few years old and liked them. I started to record him reciting Teochew Nursery Rhymes when he was 5 years old. You can find these YouTube videos searching “YouTube Timothy reciting Teochew Nursery Rhymes”. 



You may also be interested in:

Leave a comment