China Says Linguistic Diversity “Not Important”

Over 1.3 billion people live in China, speaking a variety of different languages and dialects. To help unify such a diverse country, the government has long promoted the use of China’s official language, Mandarin. As a consequence, though, China’s linguistic diversity is fading. 88 Chinese languages are endangered, according to the Globe and Mail, and the Chinese government doesn’t seem particularly interested in preserving them.

The upcoming census could have been used to help quantify the problem, simply by asking respondents to select the languages they speak.  However, questions about language were not included in the form.

Chen Xizhou, a minority language expert from the Yunnan Institute for Nationalities, told the Globe and Mail:

“They didn’t ask about something that we really need to know, but they did ask how many houses people have and how many rooms. I don’t know why that is.”

It appears Chen Xizhou can stop wondering. Fang Nailin, the Vice Director of the census, answered that question for the Globe and Mail: the government simply decided that gathering the information was “not important.”

Meanwhile, local languages like Samatao, spoken in a town called Zijun, are declining swiftly. Samatao speaker Guo Chunquan told the Globe and Mail:

“Fifty years ago, people in Zijun would curse you if you dared to speak Mandarin to them. Why didn’t we protect our mother language?”

According to UNESCO, Samatao now has less than  100 speakers.  How could it disappear so quickly in 50 years time? 70-year-old Bi Jiagui explained how it happened:

“The people living around Zijun now are all from the Han majority, so we had to speak with them in Mandarin. The other thing that happened was the education system. All the schools started teaching in Mandarin.”

2 replies
  1. Robert Derbyshire
    Robert Derbyshire says:

    Tricky one this. Languages are so tied up in people’s identity, by promoting Mandarin, the Chinese government is also hoping to increase the feeling of “Chineseness” among minorities in China. Add to this practicality – being able to speak to people makes things much easier – and preserving endangered languages ends up low on their priorities.

    Reply
  2. Caroline Mikolajczyk
    Caroline Mikolajczyk says:

    Hey Robert! very true, being able to talk to people is their 1st priority for sure, communicate their message is essential to their survival. Maybe it would be great to learn both, mandarin and some other languages which are endangered…

    Reply

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