Students recite Chinese literature at the Primary School Attached to the Nantong Normal University in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, March 15, 2010. Photos: CFP
Losing linguistic tradition
The survey also indicated that many people are unwilling to speak their own dialects. "The broad use of Putonghua is the biggest reason for the declining use of dialects. In the 1950s local dialects were common throughout the country and often the only way people communicated," said Wang, adding that at the time no one was worried about protecting dialects which were banned from the education system.
Now the tables have turned and dialects are being drowned out by Putonghua, which itself is spoken with many different accents that can clearly indicate where a person was raised.
"When a local dialect dies, its corresponding culture and traditions will inevitably die with it," said Dong Kun the director of the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He told the Global Times the decline of dialects is inevitable. "You can't force people to speak their dialect these days," said Dong. "They need to be fluent in Putonghua to be able to get a job outside their own hometown," said Dong who doesn't believe officials can do much to save the dialects.
Dong's fatalistic attitude irks dedicated people like Sun, the head of the nation's linguist association. He says everyone knows the reasons behind vanishing dialects but that doesn't mean their preservation shouldn't be attempted. "It's always important we try our best to preserve them," said Sun, "our efforts might help slow the trend down at least a bit."
The Linguistics Society's Wang agrees with Dong on one point. The loss of a language entails more than losing a way of talking. "When a language disappears many other cultural traditions will also become extinct," said Wang. He worries about the future of Kunqu opera, which has been performed in the Suzhou dialect for hundreds of years and is listed on UNESCO'S Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Not taught in schools
Qian Nairong, the director of the research center of linguistics of Shanghai University, is even worried about the continued existence of one of the country's most widely spoken dialects. Shanghainese is a very distinctive regional language that isn't taught or officially sanctioned. "Dialects live in public and to guarantee their survival they must be used in a broad environment," said Qian.
Qian has seen a huge impact on the use of the Shanghai dialect since its use was discouraged in the education system in 1992. "The majority of primary and high school students can't speak the Shanghai dialect," said Qian. "Although they might learn to understand it outside school, they won't master it well."
Qian said the use of Shanghainese has been further oppressed by policies that encourage and award schools for their efficient implementation of Putonghua.
It doesn't take a scholar to see that the end is only a few generations away for a number of dialects. If a child today only learns the basics of a dialect from their family but never learns to speak it, their child won't have the chance to even learn to understand the spoken word.
"There needs to be a balance between Putonghua and local dialects instead of over emphasizing or neglecting one or the other," said Sun.
There have been some recent breakthroughs in the use of local dialects. In Shanghai some kindergartens are offering optional classes in the Shanghai dialect and some local dialects have also been heard on local radio and television programs.
Some representatives of the Shanghai People's Congress have also proposed that the Shanghai dialect be used for announcements on the city's subway system the way Cantonese is used on the Guangzhou subway in Guangdong Province.
So far the proposal has not been implemented in Shanghai and Sun Jianping, the director of the Shanghai Transportation and Port Authority doesn't seem to see the need. He told the web portal Shanghai Online News that to become more "internationalized" the city needs use only Putonghua and English. The report didn't explain why Sun believes subway announcements in the Shanghai dialect would hinder that effort.
Cantonese is one dialect in China that appears to be growing. It's not only used on subways in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, the region even has television stations that broadcast only in Cantonese. In fact since the 1980s when the region's economy began to boom, many speakers of Putonghua have studied Cantonese, which has also influenced the nation's official language.
The Guangzhou-base web link Yangchen News reported on a study by two linguists that points to the beauty of China's lively and ever-evolving languages. They found that 600 Cantonese words have come into widespread use by speakers of Putonghua.