Written By: Kendrick Chua
Towards the last quarter of 2020, I was teaching a Hokkien class of three. A year later, that number has ballooned to a hundred. An uncanny but remarkable situation considering that when I started teaching in 2009, I only taught three other students the Hokkien language.
I had to ask: where is the interest coming from? What is driving the demand for learning this language such that all our classes are full, while a good number of students requests for one-on-one to fit their schedule and proficiency?
When my students are asked, it seems that a growing theme for wanting to learn Hokkien is to be able to connect with relatives. Rica Po, the mother of my student, Shaun echoes, “Nowadays, when kids don’t live with their grandparents anymore, the tendency is Hokkien is no longer practiced at home. But speaking Hokkien when there’s a gathering is very important. I wanted Shaun to learn it to maintain good ties with his relatives.”
Jeremy Lee, shares the same sentiment, “I want to be more in tune with my Chinese culture and one way to do that is to be more fluent in Hokkien. Speaking it makes me feel closer to my parents, grandparents, and other fellow Lan Nang.”
Speaking to other Chinoys, particularly the uncles and aunties, is also a desired objective. Carmelen Tan remarks, “My parents encouraged me to learn Hokkien and I thought I might as well try since being able to talk to other Chinoys without having to rely on my parents to speak on my behalf would be convenient”. All three have been my students since February.
But why just now?
It may be a case of not knowing such a program exists.
Mandarin learning is ubiquitous. Nearly all Chinoys at one point have had Mandarin education. Some even joined study tours to have a more immersive experience. And even if one didn’t attend any Chinese school, there is no shortage of language centers or schools to enroll in.
But for Hokkien? Not so much.
For starters, since Hokkien is not formally taught (a few schools though have Hokkien lessons but not as extensive) and is considered more of a household language, it has taken a backseat to Mandarin. Not a lot of people know where or how to study it even if they do wish to learn. One school initiated a Hokkien program but it mostly caters to students with zero to little knowledge and is conducted in groups. So those who are already fluent but seek to be even more fluent, or those whose schedules do not match the classes, look elsewhere.
Secondly, there is limited resources on learning Hokkien. Unlike Mandarin books that yield 2,000 results in Amazon, Hokkien materials numbered only a hundred—with some being Hokkien cookbooks. Despite Mandarin having tons of learning resources, everything is consistent regardless of whether it was published by Tuttle, BLCU Press or even by Rosetta Stone.
In contrast, even if one gets a hold of a Hokkien material, it is not necessarily applicable to the Philippine setting. So, one can be studying Hokkien but a Taiwanese Hokkien variation, which may offer some confusion. Once, my student shared that when she greeted a Mainland Chinese “Di ho!”, she was told, it should be “Li ho!”. Whereas in Philippines when one greets, “Li ho!”, he or she will be corrected with “Di ho!”.
Thirdly, if materials are already hard to come by, there is even a more limited number of teachers who teach Hokkien. These are the ones who grew up mostly speaking Hokkien in their homes since they were kids. On top of that, the complexity of Hokkien needs to be simplified so that even non-Chinoys would be able to understand it easily. Using Mandarin as reference only alienates them.
Learning in time of pandemic
Admittedly, the pandemic freed people from hours of travel time every day. And even those who do work from home even before the pandemic began, mostly spend their weekends and idle time at home since there are limited places to go to, and the fear of contracting Covid-19.
Lee shared, “Studying and improving my Hokkien has been something that’s on my mind for some time even before the pandemic, but I’ve never actively tried to look for a teacher due to a busy schedule.” With online learning becoming mainstream, access to previously unavailable courses has changed. Tan further adds, “Online classes became the new norm due to the pandemic, so I tried looking for a Hokkien teacher online.” Tan was checking “Hokkien classes Philippines” when she chanced upon our page. It was the same with Lee. When both of them saw our post, they immediately corresponded with us. The rest is history.
Remote learning also allows students to study from their homes. Tan, who lives in Isabela, does not need to be physically present in Manila to access the same content. This feature of online learning entices students all over the Philippines to start studying.
But is it effective?
There is no shortage of debate whether online learning or traditional face-to-face is more effective. But an article in Entrepreneur.com reveals that research shows students retain 25-60 percent more compared to 8-10 percent in a face-to-face setting.
For Lee, Tan and Po, it is a resounding yes. Tan grew up not speaking Hokkien but after a few months of diligently studying, she can now hold a full hour of conversation in Hokkien. Likewise with Lee. Since online learning is convenient for both the teacher and the student, it is a conducive environment for learning. The feature of being able to record the class and review it later allows the student better retention. Po concurs, “He (Shaun) is able to easily catch up because the class is limited to small group only. Everyone has the chance to be evaluated on their learning.” Po further adds that Shaun is able to speak more Hokkien with his father and could have a simple conversation.
The UNESCO AD Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages considers Hokkien a dying language. But with the resurgence of interests I am witnessing, and the accessibility of learning for those who are interested, it may not be so.
About the Contributor:
Kendrick Chua is the Co-Founder and CEO of In Love with Languages, Inc. He has been teaching since 2009 and has taught over 1,000 students of different ages and nationalities. He was also a CHiNOY TV host from 2011 to 2013.