Volunteers from House Of JOY have been learning dialect to engage the elderly they are serving.
Contributed By Eugene Teh
For a month, every Wednesday night, volunteers from the House Of JOY attended dialect lessons. The lessons were held to enable the volunteers to better communicate and understand the elderly they are serving. These are volunteers who have been regularly helping out in events held for the elderly and doing visitations with them.
HOJ is an initiative by the Community Outreach Program to the Elderly arm of City Harvest Community Services Association. It opened its doors on Aug. 27 this year. The purpose of the House lies in the word “JOY” which is an acronym for ‘Joining the Old and the Young’.
Since its inception in 1999, COPE has been organizing activities to promote life-long learning to the elderly, and provide them with a community to belong in. HOJ, COPE’s largest-scaled initiative so far, is a major part of how this arm of CHCSA executes its vision.
The need for dialect classes lies in the fact that many of the volunteers are not able to converse in dialect. Given the education system in Singapore, these volunteers are more comfortable falling back on Mandarin to converse with the elderly under their care. However, the elderly mostly speak dialect, and so attaining the ability to converse in dialect becomes a effective platform for volunteers to connect and communicate with and understand the elderly people they are helping. A secondary advantage is the class is also a great way to preserve local dialects and let it develop organically among the young.
Conducted by Jonathan Goh, a social worker from CHCSA, these volunteers were young, averaging 20 years of age. The classes were conducted in English, while both Cantonese and Hokkien were taught simultaneously to the students.
The volunteers began their lessons with a list of commonly used words, and they were expected to apply their newly acquired vocabulary by constructing sentences. They were also encouraged to speak dialect as much as possible during the lessons to familiarize themselves and to be prepared for communication with the elderly.
The first lesson focused on the different pronouns in the different dialects. The second lesson covered commonly used verbs that would be useful in their conversations with the elderly. The third concentrated on the names of facial features, and on the final day, the participants were quizzed on what they had learned. They were also required to submit a video of themselves conversing in dialect, which would be graded.
During the lessons, participants struggled with speaking only dialect. As expected, during the classes, many times the volunteers pronounced words wrongly, changing the meaning of the sentences altogether. Laughter was very much part of the classes!
However, coupled with what little knowledge they had attained so far, and their passion to serve the elderly, through the lessons, the participants overcame the fear of speaking dialect and of making mistakes.
This is especially true of Felicia Lee, 19, who is a part-time teacher in Kids4kids, a school for special needs children. Lee’s grandparents have always communicated with her only in Mandarin, and she grew up underexposed to Chinese dialects like Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. Lee says of the class, “The dialect class really equipped people like me and other helpers who don’t speak dialect to serve the elderly better. Jonathan taught us simple conversations that I’m able to use in my interactions with the elderly during our visitations.”
COPE intends to introduce more advanced dialect classes for volunteers of the HOJ in the future.