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Experts discuss linguistic diversity and future of dialects

07-22-2010 14:58 BJT

Linguists are gathering in Xining to discuss the varieties of language

How will we speak in the future?

Recently, the issue of how big cities “speak” is concerning more and more people. In the process of globalization, how should we view the relationship between Mandarin and local dialects, how should we deal with the question of “Chinese and English,” how should the next generation choose their language?

Currently, at the Seventh International Conference on Chinese Sociolinguistics in Xining, Qinghai Province, more than 180 linguists from around the world are discussing the way that people in big cities speak.

Will dialects disappear?

A substantial number of new “dialects” will appear

Regardless of the “struggle between Cantonese and Mandarin” in Canton, or the whirlwind surrounding “Shanghainese,” facing the invasion of foreign culture and powerful foreign languages, local residents are all worried: will the way we speak, which has been passed on for thousands of years, disappear?

In fact, the world’s variety of languages has been dealt some heavy blows, and along with the integration of the world in other ways, every year several dozen languages disappear around the world. According to projections, 90 percent of the languages around the world will be replaced by a strong language by the end of the 21st century. However, those that survive will most likely be the national languages of large nations or small dialects which have been isolated from the outside world for a long time.

What’s more, there are still two or three thousand languages that have no detailed record, and these languages may disappear after several more generations. Experts believe that the disappearance of languages will surely lead to the gradual disappearance of many diverse cultures around the world, and therefore cause the loss of many of the world’s rare and colorful cultural traditions, ways of thinking and ways of expression. The decrease in the world’s biodiversity has already drawn great attention, but the crisis in the diversity of language is a phenomenon that people should start paying more attention to.

If it is the same all over the world, what is the future viability of China’s languages? Experts point out that minority languages are the ones facing endangerment or extinction, but in the case of Chinese what certainly can be saved will be the characters. National languages, which have a long history, will continue to exist, such as the Tibetan, Mongolian and Uygur languages. Most Chinese dialects are endangered or have disappeared completely; the dialects that will most likely be permanently saved are those of the big cities, for example Shanghainese and Cantonese, which exists in Hong Kong and Canton. At the same time, this phenomenon of change can also produce a large number of new “dialects,” namely localized Mandarin. The difference between Chinese dialects is mainly a difference in speaking, which does not rule out the ability to communicate in the future.

Can all languages harmoniously coexist?

"Popularizing Mandarin and keeping the dialects as well."

Compared to the citizens’ voluntary movement to protect the dialects, You Rujie, professor of Chinese literature from Fudan University, prefers “popularizing Mandarin but keeping the dialects as well”. He suggests building a bilingual, harmonious society where Mandarin is used in formal occasions or in the public, while dialects can be used in private.

You believe that many cities are currently bilingual communities. A survey shows that about 53 percent of students speak the Shanghai dialect at home and the total rate of Shanghai citizens that speak in the Shanghai dialect is over 80 percent, while in the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, Cantonese is used both in private and public.


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