Chinese dialects in decline as government enforces Mandarin

Chinese dialects in decline as government enforces Mandarin

1/16/2022 12:16:00 PM

Chinese dialects in decline as government enforces Mandarin

Linguists concerned as regional languages dwindle amid push to strengthen uniform national identity

Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/APA class at a public boarding school for students from northern Tibet. Dialects and minority languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur now appear under greater threat.Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/APSun 16 Jan 2022 07.07 GMT

Last modified on Sun 16 Jan 2022 08.15 GMTTwo years ago, Qi Jiayao visited his mother’s hometown of Shaoxing in easternChina. When he tried to speak to his cousin’s children in the local dialect, Qi was surprised. “None of them was able to,” recalls the 38-year-old linguist, who now teaches Mandarin in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

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A class at a public boarding school for students from northern Tibet. Dialects and minority languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur now appear under greater threat. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP A class at a public boarding school for students from northern Tibet. Dialects and minority languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur now appear under greater threat. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Sun 16 Jan 2022 07.07 GMT Last modified on Sun 16 Jan 2022 08.15 GMT Two years ago, Qi Jiayao visited his mother’s hometown of Shaoxing in eastern China . When he tried to speak to his cousin’s children in the local dialect, Qi was surprised. “None of them was able to,” recalls the 38-year-old linguist, who now teaches Mandarin in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The decline in local dialects among the younger generation has become more apparent in recent years as China’s president, Xi Jinping , has sought to strengthen a uniform Chinese identity. Mandarin is now being spoken by more than 80% of China’s population, up from 70% a decade ago. Last month, China’s state council vowed to increase the figure to 85% within the next four years. But the popularisation of a standard national language is often at the expense of regional languages, including dialects of the Han majority and ethnic languages such as Mongolian and Uyghur. In Inner Mongolia, for example, local regulations in 2016 allowed ethnic schools to use their own language for teaching. This policy was aimed at developing students’ linguistic skills and cultivating bilingualism. But four years later it was reversed to favour Mandarin, a move that sparked protests from the ethnic population. It is not just ethnic languages that are being affected. In 2017, a survey circulated online showed that among the 10 dialect groups, Wu Chinese, which includes the Shanghai dialect and is spoken by about 80 million people in the eastern part of the country, has the smallest number of active users aged between six and 20. It prompted concern among linguists in the region. In Shanghai, where Qi grew up, activists have campaigned to encourage use of their dialect for many years. In 2020, a local political representative urged the Shanghai government to invest in promoting the local dialect. The government responded by upgrading the local Huju opera annual festival to a municipality-level activity. This success encouraged Qi. But he is realistic about how much activists can accomplish. In 2014, the TV programme Shanghai Dialect Talk on Shanghai Doco TV was taken off air after the government insisted on the use of standard Mandarin for the channel to be broadcast nationally. Chinese laws prevent satellite TV channels from broadcasting in local dialects. Activists are turning to social media and local events. A new group of volunteers has been making