Pro-Mandarin, anti-topolect movement in Singapore

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I encourage readers to look at all the posters in this series (thread) to see how crude the attacks on "dialects" (i.e., topolects) are.  Here are a few examples of the texts on the posters:

A 1981 poster with green background reads "Ràng wǒmen jiǎng Huáyǔ 让我们讲华语" ("Let's Speak Mandarin").  What's "funny and ironic" is that the fruit store sign depicted on the poster reads "měi lì bājiǎo 每粒八角" ("80 cents each"), using the measure word 粒, an influence from Hokkien "liap", instead of standard Mandarin "ge 个".

"Wǒ huì jiǎng Huáyǔ 我会讲华语!("I CAN SPEAK MANDARIN!")
"Huárén jiǎng Huáyǔ, hélǐ yòu héqíng 华人讲华语,合理又合情。" ("MANDARIN'S IN, DIALECT'S OUT.") — even in the mouths of babes.
"Huárén · Huáyǔ 华人 · 华语" ("Mandarin is Chinese")
"Duō jiǎng Huáyǔ, qīnqiè biànlì 多讲华语,亲切便利" ("Speak More Mandarin, It's Intimate and Convenient")

The second tweet in the series advances the notion of the "polyphonic" nature of the Sinophone soundscape in Singapore:

The Speak Mandarin Campaign is the society level expansion of a bilingual education policy that tried to unify a polyphonic Chinese-language soundscape.  Dialect broadcasts were banned, for example.  You get a sense of this polyphony from this 1957 census (Ding 2016): (2/16)

Here the author gives a table with the number of speakers of the following topolects:











They range from 30% Hokkien down to 0.1% (!) Mandarin out of the total population of 1,445,929 in 1957.  The percentage of Sinitic speakers adds up to 74.4%.  The remaining 25.6% would have had English, Malay, Indian, and other languages as their native tongue.

In the 11th tweet, the author notes:  "From the 1990s onwards, references to 'dialect' begin to disappear from slogans and posters, reflecting possibly the new 'threat' of English."


Selected readings


[Thanks to David Moser.  If this Twitter thread should ever get lost from the cybersphere, David has a pdf of the complete series of posters.]


  1. Nicholas A. Kaldis said,

    April 3, 2022 @ 1:53 pm

    Hi Shawn, you probably already know, but FYI the book: _Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: Historical Trajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices_, Edited by Klöter and Saarela, contains two chapters relevant to your current research:

    Chapter 8, “One People, One Nation, One Singapore: Language Policy and Shifting Identities among Chinese Singaporeans,” by Yeng Seng Goh and Yeow Wah Fong.

    Chapter 10, “Multilingualism and Language Policy in Singapore,” by Peter Siemund and Lijun Li.

    The journal MCLC reviewed the volume last year:



  2. Alexander Browne said,

    April 3, 2022 @ 3:36 pm

    I remember reading this article – but surprised it was nearly 5 years ago now – about increasing support for dialects Singapore:

  3. gds555 said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 8:21 am

    Perhaps in the future, as a compromise position, written Sinitic in the city-state could consist of a mixture of characters that are definitely to be read in their Mandarin pronunciations, and ones, such as for certain foods, that could optionally be read in “dialect” pronunciations. The latter characters could be marked by a special new element added to the existing semantophore and phonophore elements, with the new element being known as a “Singaphore”.

  4. John Lawler said,

    April 4, 2022 @ 5:29 pm

    The topic reminds me of the Studententrinklied "Im Schwarzen Walfisch zu Askalon".

  5. Diana S Zhang said,

    April 5, 2022 @ 12:20 pm

    Why is "Huárén jiǎng Huáyǔ, hélǐ yòu héqíng 华人讲华语,合理又合情" translated as "MANDARIN'S IN, DIALECT'S OUT" in the parentheses? Who translated it? It looks jarring to my eyes that amidst other good translations this one sticks out as unreasonably false. I'd only say that translation, esp. to whose who has no choice but to rely on them as sources, are sometimes appropriated as tools for distortion in order to serve some extra-contextual purposes.

    华人讲华语,合理又合情: "(That) Chinese people speak Chinese language stands to reason and sensibilities."

    Also, "Huárén · Huáyǔ 华人 · 华语" is NOT "Mandarin is Chinese". It means: "Chinese people; Chinese language."

    I am against translating 华语 simply as "Mandarin" although I fully acknowledge that in reality 华语 does stand for Mandarin (and in many cases, Mandarin only), contra Cantonese, Hokkien, etc. However, it is the equivalence drawn between 华语 (which lit. means "Chinese language") and 普通话 "Mandarin" that should be explored and explained. The relation between identity, language, nation-state, ethnicity, self etc. is an eternal issue that never lacks discussion for the past decades, even centuries. Yet a simple equal sign won't suffice and creates the suspicion of ethno-culturo-sentiment inducement.

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