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Tuesday, October 03, 2017, 18:29
Amid city babble, an old tongue sings again
By China Daily
Tuesday, October 03, 2017, 18:29 By China Daily

Those passionate about Shanghai dialect are intent on ensuring that eventually it will have the last word

In today's globalization the decline of Shanghai dialect, whose origins are rooted in a dialect used more than 3,200 years ago, is neither new nor unusual. (YANG YI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Zhang Fushan, 15, was born to parents who are both Shanghai natives. However, he could not speak Shanghainese properly until in recent years when he started attending middle school.

Even though Shanghai dialect is his mother tongue, "my pronunciation was bad", Zhang says, referring to when he was enrolled in Huimin Middle School, Yangpu district, four years ago.

He said he thinks this was the result of a lack of practice once he started going to kindergarten and later school, where speaking standard Chinese is compulsory. The less he spoke the dialect, the worse his pronunciation became, he said.

Culturally the Shanghai dialect is the only character that binds them together

Qian Nairong, director of the Research Center of Linguistics at Shanghai University

He had thought he might eventually abandon using the dialect when he entered middle school, but it has a club that helps students learn and practice the most authentic Shanghai dialect.

The club, called Shanghai Culture Experience Innovation Laboratory, gives students the chance to learn and practice through interactive multimedia programs or from linguists who teach folktales, rhymes, riddles and even operas in Shanghainese.

Zhang is an active member and can now recite many folktales in dialect. Being able to speak his mother tongue properly has given him "a great sense of relief and belonging", he said.

Zhang is typical of many young people in Shanghai whose limited ability to speak dialect has become the norm and raised concerns that the country's financial center will lose its native tongue. Linguists, scholars, political advisers and residents have rallied to rescue the dialect from extinction, but their success in that endeavor remains far from assured.

Shanghai dialect can trace its roots to the Wu dialect, one of China's oldest spoken languages, in use for more than 3,200 years. It has about 70 million speakers in areas around Shanghai and has its own grammar and vocabulary. Before the 1990s the dialect was widely used as the major language in Shanghai, equivalent to Cantonese in Hong Kong. Anyone speaking Mandarin in Shanghai was looked down on as provincial.

Huimin Middle School students in a play that was part of a contest aimed at promoting Shanghai dialect among youths. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, in recent decades, as the country's commercial capital has grown, the huge influx of people from other cities and countries has marginalized the city's native tongue. About 40 percent of the city's 24 million population were born other than in Shanghai.

The use of Mandarin has expanded not only among the migrant population but also among natives since the country began a nationwide campaign in 1992 to encourage its use in classrooms. In Shanghai, the campaign reached its peak between 1998 and 2008, when many schools banned the use of dialects, says Ding Dimeng, a retired professor of linguistics at Shanghai University who is keen on reviving Shanghainese.

Li Mengqian, 27, says that when she was in primary school in about 2000"we were not allowed to speak Shanghai dialect at school".

There were even students and teachers who monitored their use of language at school. If anyone was found speaking dialect they were ordered to desist, Li says.

The result is that those born in the 1980s and the 1990s have got used to speaking Mandarin and barely speak Shanghainese at school.

Li said her daughter, 4, knows how to speak the dialect because she has been raised by her grandparents whose primary language in daily communication is Shanghainese. However, things began to change last year when her daughter started kindergarten.

"She quickly picked up Mandarin and switched to that. My parents also started to talk to her in Mandarin."

Li does not consider this a problem because Mandarin needs to be mastered for both education and work. English is also important, she said.

Experts believe parents have plumped for Mandarin and even English over local dialects much as people prefer cash crops over weeds, as Tan Dan Feng, a language historian in Singapore, was quoted as saying in The New York Times recently.

The decline of Shanghai dialect in today's globalization is neither new nor unusual. It has many predecessors or contemporaries such as the Hokkien dialect in Singapore.

Students of Huimin Middle School in a Shanghai-dialect class. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hokkien, once spoken by at least three quarters of the city state's population, has given way to the more internationally communicable Mandarin and English among younger people. It has created not only a sense of loss among older people, but also a communication barrier between the young and the old.

Kuo Jian Hong, an artistic director, said the loss of the mother tongue is one basis for the claim that "Singaporeans aren't too expressive", The New York Times said.

Any dialect that has survived for at least hundreds of years is more than a communication tool, linguists say.

Ding, the retired professor from Shanghai University, said Shanghai dialect has many expressions so unique that they cannot be translated into any other language.

"They wouldn't sound right or Shanghainese," she said.

Sharing this unique Shanghainese flavor through dialect creates a sense of belonging to the same community, Ding said.

Qian Nairong, a Shanghai dialect expert and the director of the Research Center of Linguistics at Shanghai University, said the dialect embodies Shanghai culture, an essential tag of being Shanghainese.

"Shanghai people are known for minding mainly their own business," Qian wrote in 2005. "Culturally the Shanghai dialect is the only character that binds them together, relating them to each other."

Bu Wenshan, who grew up in the city, is a saleswoman for a real estate developer. As her clients come from different parts of the country, Mandarin is her primary working language. However, she said, she would automatically shift to Shanghai dialect if she finds that the dialect is also her client's native tongue.

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