If you were trying to come up with a Chinese term that is known around the world, what would be a prime candidate? ‘Kung fu’, perhaps, which is so well known that it needs no description. For food lovers another might be be ‘dim sum’, the delicious, bite-sized dumplings. And what do both have in common? Both are Cantonese, a dialect spoken largely in Hong Kong and Guangdong province in China’s south. Some Cantonese words have gone natiowide in China too – for instance, ‘maidan’, a popular term used at the end of a meal to ask a waiter for the bill.
However, the Chinese media has been focusing recently on how the race by parents to give their children an educational edge could see many local dialects snuffed out or marginalised within a generation.
How so? As China’s educational landscape reaches unprecedented levels of competition, many middle-class parents are no longer speaking their native dialects with their kids. From their perspective, prioritising Mandarin gives their child a better chance of career success in China, while prioritising English gives them access to colleges and careers in the rest of the world. In that case, why bother wasting time and energy mastering a dialect?
NetEase cited a study this month that sampled 305 Nanjing households on whether they agreed with this statement: “Parents need to use their mother tongue [their local dialect] when speaking with their children”. The survey found that 52.8% strongly disagreed, and 28.6% disagreed.
The same study found 81% strongly agreed and 11.4% agreed with the statement: “Apart from Mandarin, children grasping foreign languages brings benefits for their future development”.
NetEase says the study points to a rising trend of local dialects being seen as “unimportant” and as a “victim” of educational competitiveness, particularly in the big cities.
Linguistic trends show that post-1990s parents may be the last generation to speak their home dialects completely fluently, raising questions about the knock-on effects on local cultures and identities. In Beijing, for example, it used to be commonplace to hear a thick “r” mumbled at the end of many words. On the streets and in the hutong alleyways, “I don’t know” (in Mandarin wo bu zhidao) became an almost inaudible burdao. Now that usage is fading out.
Within China’s provincial-level administrative units, there are more than 160 local dialects (as well as various ethnic minority languages). Depending on the classification system being used, there are seven dialect groups: Northern (Mandarin), Central (Wu, Gan, and Xiang) and Southern (Hakka, Cantonese and Min). Divisions of each of these groups uncovers more sub-categories, to the extent that in many provinces villages within close proximity can differ in spoken word.
Hence the expression in Fujian province “if you drive five miles the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does”.
At the beginning of this century policymakers in Beijing intensified efforts to consolidate the linguistic patchwork of China’s 1.4 billion people. The Law of Universal Language and Character was enacted, making Mandarin the nation’s official language and campaigns followed to promote its compulsory use across government, most of the state media and throughout the school curriculum. For parents wanting to send their children to top universities, speaking Mandarin at home has subsequently been preferred over regional dialects as it is considered an “educational language”.
Retention of more localised dialects among 6-20 year-olds is now profoundly mixed. NetEase points out that in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, 91.5% of young people are proficient in their local dialect. In the coastal metropolis of Qingdao in Shandong this figure slumps to 63.2%. In Shanghai, a hub for international business and a den for tiger parenting, only 22.4% can proficiently converse in Shanghainese.
Where Shanghai goes the rest of China is set to follow, argues NetEase, as local dialects get caught in a pincer movement between the dual forces of Mandarin and English. But perhaps the toughest of the local tongues to winkle out will be Cantonese, with at least 67 million speakers in China, and more overseas.
Additionally, many people in Hong Kong see their dialect as part of their identity and worth protecting from mainland encroachment. Indeed some Hongkongers argue that Cantonese is the closest to the ancestral Han tongue because Tang Dynasty poems (the earliest verse was penned 1,400 years ago) rhyme much better in Cantonese than in Mandarin.
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