Straits Times Interactive, AUG 19, 2004
Local dialects are disappearing as greater mobility and interaction give rise to the need for a common tongue
By Goh Sui Noi
BEIJING - The original 27,000 residents of Shenzhen, a former sleepy fishing village, have melted into today's metropolis of four million - and so has the local dialect they used to speak.
Similarly, mass migration of entire villages along the Yangtze River to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project and the scattering of their residents, has sounded the death knell for the villagers' local dialects.
Modernisation is posing a greater threat to China's more than 1,000 dialects than the government's efforts to popularise putonghua or Mandarin since 1955.
'The modernisation process is a main reason for the decline of dialects,' said assistant professor Jing Wendong of the Central University for Nationalities.
The popularisation of putonghua - the national language based on the Beijing dialect - only quickened the pace of decline, he added.
In the past, China was an agrarian society where its people lead sedentary lives in villages and towns separated by mountains.
As China modernised and moved towards a market economy, there was greater mobility and more interaction between different communities, giving rise to the need for a common tongue.
Dialects expert Zhou Lei pointed out that it was previously difficult to promote the use of putonghua in the relatively isolated city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province.
But as Wenzhou people became more engaged in business activity and needed to communicate with the outside world, they 'spontaneously learnt putonghua', he told The Straits Times.
While minor dialects with fewer speakers are seen to be most at risk from modernisation, major dialects such as the Shanghai dialect have also come under threat.
'In the cities, people congregate from all regions and for these people to communicate, they need a common language, which is putonghua,' noted Professor Qian Nairong, a linguistics expert.
Mr Zhou noted that in Shanghai, while there are still more than 10 million speakers of the Shanghai dialect, the sphere in which it is being used has become smaller.
Agreeing, Prof Qian placed part of the blame for the decline of dialects on measures to restrict its use in newspapers and on television.
Others have pointed out that as young people gained fluency in putonghua, it has affected the usage of dialects.
For example, in the Zhejiang city of Jinhua with a population of 4.49 million, it is found that among young people aged six to 14, almost all could speak putonghua while 52.03 per cent could not speak the Jinhua dialect.
Overall, the number of dialect-speakers is declining.
Language experts lament a loss of plurality in the Chinese culture with the decline in the use of dialects.
'Behind each dialect is the culture of a particular area, and local cultures are very rich,' said Prof Qian.
He suggested that dialects be accorded equal status as putonghua and be allowed to develop naturally.
NO NEED FOR MOTHER TONGUE
BEIJING - Ms Qin Zhongxia, 34, is more worried about her 12-year-old son's progress in English lessons than whether he can speak his mother tongue.
A migrant worker from Anhui province, she speaks the dialect of their Gangbao village with her husband, but putonghua with her son Li Liming.
'If you ask me, I'd rather he speaks putonghua well, then English, and then our dialect,' she said.
Many migrant workers share her views. 'I don't wish for him to stay in the village, there is no future there,' Ms Qin added. And if he was not going back to the village, it did not matter if he could not speak his dialect well. \-- Goh Sui Noi