Shanghainese in Danger

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How do you unite a country as diverse as China? A common spoken language certainly helps, but the government has often promoted Mandarin at the expense of, instead of in addition to, local dialects.

As a result, the survival of other Chinese languages is threatened. For example, even Shanghainese, the most famous branch of the ancient Wu dialect family, is under threat. Linguistics professor Qian Nairong of Shanghai University was quoted in the Telegraph as saying “Shanghainese will come to an end within a generation or two.”

The popularity of English as a second language is another obstacle for Shanghainese. Language activist Roman Xu told the reporters:

“I guess the younger generation is much more familiar with English than their mother tongue. I’ve read in history books about how a language gradually dies out. Hope my mother tongue won’t become one.”

However, English is really a secondary threat. As in so many other countries, the government’s promotion of a common language (“putonghua,” or standard Mandarin) has in the not-too-distant past taken the form of suppressing the local dialect in schools- even outside of class.

As Qian Narong explained to the Global Times, starting in the early 1990’s, “Teachers’ morality scores, which are related to their salary, were lowered if their students were discovered speaking the dialect.”

Cao Zhiyi, a student when the policy was implemented, explained that the school used a system of student informers to catch students who spoke in Shanghainese between and after classes:

“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.”

The news isn’t all bad, however. Efforts have been made to revive the language and to prevent schools from discouraging Shanghainese, though very few actually teach it. The local court system has also started training officers in Shanghainese. And for now, at least, speaking Shanghainese is still an advantage when it comes to doing business in Shanghai. Insurance saleswoman Xu Shudan is actually studying the dialect so that she can more easily make connections in the city. She told the Guardian,

“Mandarin is spoken nationwide. However in Shanghai, using words like “nonghao” -a local expression for hello – can immediately close the distance between business partners.”

That’s positive, but how long will it last? If young people don’t speak it, the language will certainly lose its prestige among businesspeople when they begin calling the shots.

It seems inevitable that “pure” Shanghainese will change as it takes on influences from Mandarin. In fact, Chinese linguists told the Global Times that this has already happened. Hopefully, though, the language will survive.