The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #22 July / August 2016
Languages in Peril
Save Medan Hokkien!
by Teddy Nee
July / August 2016 | 

Location of city of Medan in North Sumatra Province, Indonesia

I bet many of you who are reading this have no idea about the Hokkien language. If you know Chinese, it is called 福建話 (Fujianese). In fact, the name "Hokkien" is how "Fujianese" is said in the language. Calling this language as Hokkien/ Fujianese is not the only way to refer to it because the Taiwanese call it "Taiwanese Hokkien" or just "台語 (Taiwanese)". So, why is it called different names and why should we care about it?

I was born as a Hokkien descendent with a quarter part of my heritage belonging to Cantonese. I was lucky, because almost every Chinese descendents in Medan city of Indonesia still speaks Hokkien alongside the Indonesian language as native languages. In addition, some even speak other Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese or Hakka. Nevertheless, please note that these languages are not spoken in the same way as the original due to its assimilation with Indonesian features.

Medan Hokkien

Since I am from Medan city and since most of Hokkien speakers in Indonesia can only be found in Medan city, we call our variety of Hokkien "Medan Hokkien". It is distinguishable from Hokkien spoken in China and Taiwan. Medan Hokkien shares many similarities with Penang Hokkien spoken in Penang (Malaysia), which can be only be reached by an approximately 45-minute flight. Another similar Hokkien is that spoken in Singapore, which, while differing a bit in accent, is still understandable.

Former Varekamp & Co. bookstore and printing in Medan

In our daily life, we speak Medan Hokkien only colloquially, with no writing system. Because of that, we need to use Indonesian in writing while using Medan Hokkien in speaking.Two languages at the same time! It is also common not to speak a sentence completely in Medan Hokkien because there is always lack of words. In that case, it will be filled in with Indonesian words. For example, "wa ai ciak pisang" means "I want to eat banana". The first three words are in Hokkien and the last word is in Indonesian.

Please note that I'm not a linguist and the spelling system I use is the Indonesian spelling system. It is not encouraged to write in this way because Hokkien is tonal language and there is no tonal marks in Indonesian spelling, so it may cause confusion.

Taiwanese / Southern Min Language

Medan skyline, taken from 26th floor of Grand Swiss Belhotel

Being in Taiwan, I had learnt that the language that I had always called Hokkien is called Taiwanese or Southern Min language. It is called Taiwanese because this variety of Hokkien is widely spoken in Taiwan, whose speakers' ancestors were originally from Fujian Province in China. Fujian Province is the birthplace of the Hokkien language, which is why the language is also called Fujianese.

However, Taiwanese Hokkien and Medan Hokkien share quite a lot of differences, moat noticeably in the pronunciation and vocabulary. Taiwanese Hokkien has influences from Chinese Mandarin, while Medan Hokkien has influences from other Chinese dialects, like Cantonese and Hakka.

My parents do not speak Chinese Mandarin but luckily, they can speak Medan Hokkien whenever they visit me in Taiwan. However, it is still quite difficult to maintain the conversation. Based on my experience, it could be like a Spanish speaker speaking with a Portuguese speaker who speaks with less of a Portuguese accent. Or maybe I'm wrong? Anyway, both languages differ in the pronunciation while still sharing similar words. At least, both still can communicate quite well for basic matters.

Edge of Extinction?

Is Hokkien language facing an extinction? One source that I consulted mentions that there are about 47 million speakers, including around 27 millions of these speakers in China. The rest of the speakers are spread over several Southeast Asian countries, like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, etc. and countries in other continents, like Australia, USA, and Canada.

The overall number of Hokkien speakers is larger than that of Polish, Romanian, Dutch, and many European language speakers. But note that there are varieties of Hokkien, and that's what matters and is worrying.

By looking at this number, Hokkien can be considered as a big language, can't it? The overall number of Hokkien speakers is larger than that of Polish, Romanian, Dutch, and many European language speakers. But note that there are varieties of Hokkien, and that's what matters and is worrying.

Taking into account that Chinese Mandarin is gaining popularity since the last few years because of the economic boom of China, Chinese Mandarin is a popular language among Chinese regardless their ethnicities, such as Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese, etc. Recently, I watched a video of how the number of Penang Hokkien is decreasing because many families speak Chinese Mandarin with their kids and are discouraged to teach Penang Hokkien for the sake of better opportunity for their kids in the future.

The population of Medan city is about 2 million, and Chinese descendents make up about 10% of it. The rest of the portions is shared among Medan multiethnic societies, like Javanese, Bataknese, Malay, Tamil, etc. That means there are less than 300,000 Medan Hokkien speakers. That's even less than the population of Belize, the only English-speaking country in Central America!

Why it matters?

TipTop Restaurant

Until the time of this writing, I haven't found any reliable sources for learning Medan Hokkien or any way to preserve it. There are videos made in Medan Hokkien by some vloggers and unofficial song videos which are made just for fun. There is no writing system for Medan Hokkien, so the only way to keep this variety of Hokkien alive is to keep on speaking it with the next generations, unless someone will take the initiative to record it in written form.

I know that Medan Hokkien might still be faraway from disappearance but with the increasing interest in learning English, Chinese Mandarin, and other languages which are considered much more useful for our globalized society, we don't know what would happen with Medan Hokkien in the next 5 or 10 years.

Teddy is an avid language learner, blogger, engineer, and a collector. He has a dream to make this world a better place through language learning. He shares his language knowledge at Nee's Language Blog.

Save Medan Hokkien!
Writer: Teddy Nee
Firzafp: Traffic jam on the streets of Medan (title)
Ewesewes: Location of city of Medan in North Sumatra Province, Indonesia
Rochelimit: Former Varekamp & Co. bookstore and printing in Medan
Kenrick: Medan skyline, taken from 26th floor of Grand Swiss belhotel
Iijjccoo: TipTop Restaurant

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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