Fighting for their language

By Chen Xiaoru Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-13 1:10:03

Two elderly people sit in an alley outside their home in Shanghai and chat on July 6. Photo: CFP
Two elderly people sit in an alley outside their home in Shanghai and chat on July 6. Photo: CFP

An ancient Chinese language with more than 2,200 years of history is facing extinction, though it's far from a remote tongue spoken only by a handful of isolated rural residents. The language in question lives and breathes in the heart of bustling Shanghai.

"Shanghainese will come to an end within a generation or two," Qian Nairong, the author of two textbooks and a dictionary on the dialect, told Reuters recently. The retired professor has been waging a campaign to protect the local language amid a dramatic decline in the number of speakers, which has largely been caused by policy changes designed to favor Putonghua in schools.

Qian told the Global Times that the decline in Shanghainese became a problem when the city's education authorities implemented a strict rule to forbid teachers and students from using their local dialect in 1992. 

"Teachers' morality scores, which are related to their salary, were lowered if their students were discovered speaking the dialect," Qian said, adding that the policy led to students' decreasing ability and willingness to use their native language.

It wasn't just during class time that the use of Shanghainese was banned. Cao Zhiyi, a Shanghai local who started school in 1993, now speaks poor Shanghai dialect, and mainly uses Putonghua with his parents. He recalls the way the policy was implemented.

"Students from other classes were dispatched to take records when we spoke Shanghainese after class. The class teacher would scold those who spoke it as damaging class honor," he said.

Qian isn't alone in his struggle to preserve the language. Shanghai local Cao Weifeng, 31, recently founded a non-profit organization together with like-minded friends, aimed at protecting Shanghainese.

"I did not realize that the situation had become so bad until last year," Cao told the Global Times. This realization came after a teacher punished a girl for using her local dialect in class.

The girl, from Minhang High School, was ordered to write an apology letter of at least 800 words for responding to a non-local teacher's question in the Shanghai dialect in September last year. She was lectured by the teacher for 30 minutes after class, according to a local media report.

"I signed my name, together with a lot of other people, as part of a plea to the city government, demanding the school's apology," Cao said.

However, the plea, as well as a phone call to the school's president, went unanswered, he said.

Loosening control

Qian has been calling for the removal of restrictions on the local dialect in schools for more than a decade, and last year the local authorities agreed to loosen the rules.

The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission allowed teachers and students to speak the Shanghai dialect after class, but stated that Putonghua should be the only official language in class and class activities, according to the Xinmin Evening News.

However, Qian discovered that some schools  were still forbidding the use of the Shanghai dialect after class. "There has been little improvement. The authorities should demonstrate a clearer attitude toward promoting the Shanghai dialect. Schools should set up classes to teach children to speak it," he said.

Qian said that the Shanghai and Hangzhou dialects, which are both branches of the ancient Wu language, have been among the hardest hit by the Putonghua promotion policy. "The policy was not strictly implemented in some northern cities, and that's why their children can still speak their dialects well," he said.

According to a 2010 survey by the Shanghai Municipal Working Committee of the Spoken and Written Language, fewer than 40 percent of local elementary children speak the Shanghai dialect at home.

"I found a clear pronunciation distinction between those born after 1985 and those born before. Those born after 1985 could barely pronounce 'I' in their local dialect properly. It should be 'ngu', but they pronounce 'wu' similar to 'wo' in Putonghua," said Zhu Zhenmiao, a graduate student majoring in dialect research, who is also a member of Cao's organization.

It has become so difficult to find a young person who speaks proper Shanghainese that a famous radio program, Ah Fugen, which broadcasts in local dialect, had to spend two months holding a competition to find its new hosts.

"The Shanghai dialect has become Putonghua with a Shanghai accent in those young persons' mouths," said Ye Jin, the soon-to-retire host of the program.

The radio program, which was launched in 1961, went on hiatus for 10 years from 1992 due to the Putonghua promotion policies.

In addition, all local TV programs that were primarily broadcast in Shanghainese were cancelled following an order from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, according to the Shanghai Morning Post last year.

"I think things have improved this year," Cao said. He was optimistic about the future of Shanghainese after he learned that a TV news channel launched a weekly Shanghai dialect program in June.

The change was made after a proposal was submitted to the local government earlier this year, which called on people to realize the importance of protecting the Shanghai dialect, according to the Oriental Morning Post.

Not so optimistic

Professor Qian recently began promoting a book he had written for students, using the Shanghai dialect.

"As yet, there is only one school, in the Pudong New Area, that uses the book. The education authorities have yet to agree to set up Shanghainese classes as part of the curriculum, so schools are unwilling to spend time teaching pupils the dialect because they won't be tested on it," he said.

However, Qian said that students have to pass Putonghua standard tests during a Putonghua promotion week each September, when the new semester begins.

Zhu Zhenmiao said that many parents and grandparents speak to their children in Putonghua.

"Because children who are used to Putonghua in school don't like to speak Shanghainese, parents and grandparents, who spoil their children, also speak Putonghua to compete for the child's favor," Zhu said.

The space of locals speaking Shanghainese has been shrinking, as communication at many shops, even buying vegetables at a food market, increasingly requires Putonghua.

"They have to use Putonghua in food markets because the vendors, who are mostly non-locals, only know Putonghua," Qian said.

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