For National University of Singapore (NUS) economics undergraduate Genevieve Ng, a volunteer with NUS Community Service Club, not understanding Cantonese proved to be the biggest challenge when it came to helping a particular elderly woman.
The woman, who was in her 70s, could not understand a word Miss Ng, who speaks Mandarin and English, said.
The 23-year-old was tasked – along with other volunteers – to help clean the woman’s one- room Jalan Bukit Merah flat three years ago.
“Without a translator, my friends and I were lost,” recalled Miss Ng. “We weren’t sure what to touch and what not to touch.”
Likewise, the woman was unable to direct them, and often lost patience with them.
Thus, Miss Ng is glad that the Community Service Club has introduced dialect lessons for volunteers, and she attended its first Cantonese workshop last Monday.
The NUS club has been around for a decade and has some 300 student members.
The club’s dialect classes, which began last year with the introduction of Hokkien classes, are taught by student volunteers.
Last Monday, the student lounge at NUS was a hive of activity, with 20 students congregating around trainer and fellow club member So Man Shan, 21, during the two-hour workshop. Miss So, a geography major, came to Singapore from Hong Kong at the age of two.
She taught her fellow students common phrases and simple greetings, and also how to ask about aches and pains, in Cantonese.
The dialect lessons are the brainchild of club member Tan Hong Yu, 25, a chemical- and biomolecular-engineering undergraduate who has been an active volunteer at various organisations for nine years.
He noticed the language barrier between elderly beneficiaries and young NUS volunteers during home visits to the terminally ill.
Mr Tan himself started brushing up on his Hokkien at the age of 16, so that he could better help the needy. He said: “When we speak their language, the elderly tend to be more comfortable with sharing their fears.”
Miss Ng said: “No matter how broken the dialect we speak may be, the elderly feel happy when we can communicate with them.”
This article was first published in Asiaone