Vanishing languages saved for posterity

Updated: 2012-09-28 00:53

By Cheng Yingqi (China Daily)

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Government seeks to preserve dialects before they disappear

Education authorities are compiling a database on the dialects of different regions and ethnic groups across the country to preserve those languages before they disappear, a senior government official said.

Given China's rapid economic and social development, standard Mandarin, or Putonghua, has become increasingly popular across the country. It is even replacing some local dialects, particularly in urban and developed areas, said Zhang Haoming, director of the language information management department under the Ministry of Education.

By 2011, 70 percent of people in China could speak and read standard Mandarin, compared with 51 percent in 2000, according to the government.

Zhang said the popularity of Putonghua is inevitable because it has become an important tool for daily communication and economic exchanges between people of different regions. "For individuals, they may feel their self-development restricted if they don't speak Putonghua," he said.

Zhang said that at the same time, some dialects that had existed in certain regions for a long time and carry historic and cultural significance are disappearing.

"That's why we launched the national project to record the dialects and, ultimately, to complete a database on China's dialects," Zhang said in an interview with China Daily.

Important parts of the database are language resources and a comprehensive vocal collection, which was initiated in 2008. So far, pilot projects have been carried out in Jiangsu and Liaoning provinces, Shanghai and Beijing municipalities, and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, according to the ministry.

A recent example of the project that has attracted a lot of media attention was in Dalian, in Liaoning province, where the government this month chose nine residents as representatives of the Dalian dialect. After training, they will record the pronunciation of 1,000 commonly used characters, 1,200 words and some sentences in the Dalian dialect.

"This is the first step of protecting the dialects. We plan to finish recording the dialects across the country in five to 10 years, and now we will start with some city and provincial level governments, which are more active in participating in the project," Zhang said.

As for developing more uses for the records besides academic materials, Zhang said there is no overall plan yet. "Now it is even hard to give a clear timetable for the whole project because the situation varies from region to region.

"For example, local dialects are still popular in regions like Sichuan, Chongqing and Shaanxi, so there is no need to protect the dialects so quickly.

"However, in some regions, where the local language is dying out, the protection is delayed again and again because of insufficient funds in the language-protection projects," he said.

China has around 130 different local languages and numerous accents and dialects. There are no official statistics on the number of languages that are disappearing, but Zhang gave some examples.

One example is the She language, which used to be spoken by 50,000 people of the She ethnic group. However, since the She have scattered in Fujian, Zhejiang, Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces, the language has been gradually replaced by other dialects that are more widely used, such as Cantonese.

However, Zhang said promoting Putonghua is still the priority. "We will further promote Putonghua. Meanwhile, we will also use modern technologies to protect disappearing languages, and as well protect the cultural meaning behind the languages," he said.

So far, language research institutes have already published a number of dialect dictionaries, including the Shanghai, Harbin and Guangzhou dialect dictionaries.

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