Speaking less Shanghainese in Shanghai is not a bad thing

By Chen Zeling Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/10 17:33:39

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

A chart showing the percentages of Chinese 6- to 20-year-olds who are able to speak fluent dialects from their home provinces across China recently went viral. Among them, only 22.4 percent of Shanghai natives can speak Shanghainese, compared with 72.1 percent in Guangzhou and 97.5 percent in Chongqing who can speak their own dialects.

Commenting on this discrepancy, many netizens exclaimed how sad it was that Shanghai is "losing its grip" on the younger generations.

Few would deny that the Shanghai dialect is being used less in recent decades. When my father attended college in Shanghai in the 1980s, teachers back then preferred to speak in the dialect even if the student could not understand.

I am currently a university student here; some of my professors occasionally burst out in Shanghainese words, but few insist on speaking Shanghainese regularly. As a nonlocal, I am quite happy about this. I would rather Shanghai become more open to a larger variety of people and languages rather than only focus on its own.

I remember many years ago, while shopping with my mother at a Shanghai mall, a saleswoman, who was speaking Shanghainese, changed her attitude from nice to rather negative the moment my mother answered her in Putonghua. These days, however, most salesclerks in Shanghai are outsiders who barely speak proper Putonghua let alone the local dialect.

In the old days, far fewer migrant workers were in Shanghai. Most jobs here were filled by local residents. As a result, whether in workplaces or during casual occasions, people would instinctively speak Shanghainese. If you were not able to respond in Shanghainese, you were often treated differently.

I hold the opinion, however, that attitude is what lies at heart of this problem. While interning at another local newspaper two years ago, I felt quite alienated from my colleagues, who could all speak Shanghainese. For some reason, they refused to switch to Putonghua in order to let me join in their conversations and meetings. This conceited attitude has long had negative repercussions on Shanghai's reputation, resulting in droves of extremely talented Chinese professionals choosing cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen.

Strangely enough, for an international city with such a disparate population all working and living together, Shanghai is far more tolerant of foreigners who don't speak any Putonghua whatsoever than it is of other Chinese who don't speak Shanghainese. This sense of superiority, which stems from being one of China's earliest urbanized regions and having easier access to the outside world than other provinces carries on to this day.

My father used to encourage me to learn Shanghainese in order to fit in, which I thought was ridiculous considering that Putonghua is the official language of the People's Republic of China. The literal definition of Putonghua is "common speech," so shouldn't it be Shanghai locals who should learn to master Putonghua instead of the other way around?

Thus, the declining number of locals speaking Shanghainese is not necessarily a bad thing. The transition to Putonghua will achieve more harmony between natives and migrants and, as a result, even more economic progress. Yes, there is the existing concern that this will lead to a loss of local traditions. I agree that the city should take necessary steps to preserve the dialect as an intangible cultural heritage.

But instead of forcing students to use Shanghainese textbooks, perhaps a more effective method would be to invest more in research of the Shanghai dialect from a historical perspective. One book, published in 2013, took a researcher seven years to compile proverbs in the Xinzhuang (a town in Minhang district of Shanghai) dialect, which is considered the root of the Shanghai dialect.

Shanghai dialect should definitely be protected, I do not deny that, But in daily and professional settings here, it should be phased out and replaced by Putonghua in order to attract and welcome more Chinese talents.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

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