Dialect faces death threat

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-5-16 0:26:00

New first-grade students of Baotong Elementary School in Huangpu district of Shanghai take their first class on August 31 last year. Photo: CFP

By Ni Dandan in Shanghai

Children at the Modern Baby Kindergarten in Shanghai spend Fridays eating deep-fried dough sticks, playing marbles and learning old children's songs in Shanghainese.

"It's not unusual to find many kids today who cannot even speak a word of Shanghainese, let alone the authentic dialect," Wang Ping, kindergarten principal, told the Global Times.

"So we arranged Shanghai Day on Fridays to promote the language and local culture.”

The special courses were introduced when the kindergarten was launched in 2006. All the kids must speak the local dialect instead of Putonghua all day on the day.

"The practice has turned out to be appealing to both local and non-local parents, and even some foreign families,"Wang said.

Shanghai Municipal Commission of Education announced late last month that they would promote learning Shanghai dialect in kindergartens and elementary schools after the city's policy advisors suggested earlier this year a formal course teaching the dialect should be carried out on a weekly basis.

Shanghainese is a part of the Wu Chinese dialect family used in downtown districts of the city, with linguistic connections to the neighboring Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. With a history of 700 years, the dialect experienced fast development after Shanghai opened as a port in 1843.


Shanghai dialect usage has dropped off in recent years. Less than 40 percent of the elementary school students speak it at home, according to a 2010 survey on the language habits of students in Shanghai by the Municipal Working Committee of the Spoken and Written Language.

The situation has resulted in increasing difficulty for Shanghai opera artists to find their heirs and a concern the language is dying.

"The dialect carries the city's cultural identity and heritage,"Qian Nairong, a professor of Chinese language at Shanghai University, told the Global Times. "It's therefore immensely important we teach our children the dialect. If we fail, our dialect will disappear within 20 years.”

Fading dialect is not just a Shanghai problem. Kids in Guangzhou born after 2000 cannot master Cantonese either, according to a report by the Southern Metropolitan Daily.

China launched a nationwide campaign to promote Putonghua in 1956 and redoubled efforts were made in 1992.

"In response to the promotion policy, students and teachers at elementary and high schools were required to speak Putonghua both in and out of class,"Qian told the Global Times. 

"We found that generations born after the 1980s became poorer at Shanghainese.”

Lack of standard teaching materials makes any Shanghainese initiative hard to turn into reality, said Pan Bin, principal of the Good Time Bilingual Kindergarten in Shanghai.

"Teaching materials should be studied meticulously,"Pan told the Global Times. "It won't help in the long run if the course is arranged more like an image project.”



Teachers in her kindergarten were required to talk to the children in Shanghainese during break time, Pan said, and parents were encouraged to do so during off-school time. "However, parents seem to attach more attention to the teaching of the English language instead,"Pan said.

Setting up a Shanghainese course was not on the Shanghai Luwan No. 1 Central Elementary School's agenda yet, Principal Wu Rongjin told the Global Times.

Instead of forcing students to learn it, Wu suggested it was more practical to create an atmosphere for the language. "My school has been arranging a Shanghainese tongue-twister competition every year.”

"Students are active in learning the language preparing for the contest and that's enough. Kids have a gift for languages."

Teachers would be at a loss to teach Shanghainese without clarified standards, he believed.

After a citywide survey on the language habits of students, Professor Jiang Bingbing of the East China Normal University concluded Shanghai students can all basically speak Shanghainese and that the ability improves as they grow older.

"Although the survey was carried out in 2005, the situation remains similar today,"Jiang told the Global Times Sunday.

His survey found the percentage of students who tend to speak Shanghai dialect on family occasions grows with age: 38 percent of fifth-graders, 45 percent of seventh-graders, 58 percent of 10th-graders and 71 percent of college freshmen. The frequency of Putonghua use decreased.

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