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Dialects fall by the wayside for Mandarin

http://english.hebei.com.cn  2012-12-05 10:50

  A college teacher shows the playing cards he designs to protect the local dialect in Luoyang, Henan Province.

  Regional dialects are in danger of dying out as members of China's younger generation abandon the languages of their forefathers for Mandarin and English, Xinmin Weekly magazine reports.

  The problem mainly stems from a move by the central government a few decades ago to force domestic schools to use Mandarin Chinese, or Putonghua, as the primary teaching language, says the magazine.

  Meanwhile, children in Suzhou are hardly able to understand traditional storytelling or ballad singing, and kids in northeast China frequently mix in Mandarin with their outdated local dialects.

  In order to protect these cultural codes, a number of scholars have launched a campaign to save the country's dialects from fading away completely.

  Among the efforts, an audible database project has been initiated by the State Language Commission, which will include recordings of native speakers of different dialects from all across China.

  The project is already underway in cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Dalian, where staff have finished selecting native speakers and begun recording local dialects.

  The project is, to some extent, an effective emergency measure for endangered dialects, but it is far from sufficient, says Wang Ping, a professor at Suzhou University who specializes in local dialect research.

  The most endangered dialects are not in cities but in remote areas, where dialects can easily die out with the populations who speak them, Wang points out.

  Even in cities, dialects are undergoing great changes, as young people tend to use fewer traditional expressions than seniors, he adds. That's why we often observe that some young people can't fully express themselves in dialects, so they have to mix Mandarin into conversation.

  Although the database project is bringing hope to the cause of dialect protection, most efforts are still done by grass-roots activists, according to Xinmin Weekly.

  Earlier this year, a native Shanghai engineer released software for Android users allowing them to type Shanghainese into their mobile phones. A few days later, similar software was released for the iPhone.

  The move is notable because Shanghainese is traditionally recognized strictly as an oral language, intelligible only to Shanghai natives and people in several neighboring cities.

  Others have also stepped up to promote the cause. 29-year-old Qi Jiayao, who works at an institution that teaches Chinese as a second language, has set up a group focused on Shanghainese on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging site. He also organizes offline activities to facilitate communication about the history and usage of language.

  The long history and unique qualities of Shanghainese have brought attention to it in recent years. Some public buses have started using it in addition to Mandarin and English in their announcements, while Shanghai Airlines in January began using the dialect on some of its flights.

  Filmmakers are also trying to contribute to dialect protection by shooting films in Shanghainese and Cantonese, as well as dialects from Sichuan and Shanxi provinces. The director who is most famous for using dialects is Ning Hao, whose films use humor derived from the local expressions of different regions across the country.

  However, such movements will only slow the decline of dialects, says Qian Nairong, a professor of linguistics.

  The ban on dialects in schools cuts children off from learning them, yet a dialect as a cultural code should be inherited from the time children are born, says Qian.

  The government should understand that protecting dialects does not contradict the promotion of Mandarin, Qian explains, and the promotion of Mandarin must not be a tool for eradicating dialects.

  Qian cites a story about the children of migrant workers in Shanghai who were more eager to learn Shanghainese, because they wanted to blend into the local scene by learning the cultural code.

  This further proves that a dialect is a living fossil of a culture, which contains the most ancient and indigenous aspects of humanity, says Qian. More room should be given to dialect development so that unique regional civilizations can be passed down through the generations.

  If the issue is not dealt with, Shanghainese will probably come to an end within one or two generations, says Qian.


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