Shanghai dialect locked in tug of war with Mandarin

Updated: 2014-02-28 08:49

By Xu Junqian in Shanghai (China Daily)

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Shanghai dialect locked in tug of war with Mandarin

Children attend a dialect contest in Shanghai. Many locals have displayed a keen interest in preventing Shanghainese, the local dialect, from being replaced by Mandarin. Chen Fei / Xinhua

"It's a reality show. That means the language spoken during the show is not decided by us," he said. Yin estimated that 75 percent of participants speak Mandarin as their mother tongue, which means the mediators must use the language too, even though they are mostly Shanghai natives.

Shanghai dialect locked in tug of war with Mandarin

Research conducted by the Shanghai Statistics Bureau in February supported Yin's assertion. It found that Shanghai residents now use Mandarin more frequently in their daily lives, to the detriment of Shanghainese.

More than 1,000 residents aged 13 and older who have lived in the city for more than six months were interviewed, including both natives and newcomers. The results showed that while only 3 percent of respondents were unable to speak Mandarin, 18.6 percent didn't understand Shanghainese.

In addition, interviewees aged 13 to 20 recorded lower scores in tests designed to assess their ability to speak and comprehend the Shanghai dialect than any other age group. "The reality may be even worse," said Qian Cheng, a member of the Shanghai committee of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference and a passionate advocate of his home dialect.

"Young people are giving up the language, both because they are not good at it - if capable at all - and don't have to use it often. At the same time, older people are accommodating their offspring by speaking pidgin Mandarin, which has left the local tongue under an unprecedented threat," said Qian.

During the city's annual two sessions in January, Qian proposed that Shanghai should create a dialect-friendly environment for Shanghainese and encourage young people to use the language more, at least at home.

"If the 20- and 30-somethings desert the language, it's highly unlikely that their offspring will be able to pick up it again," he said.

Reasons to be cheerful?

But Shen Lei, the anchor of the popular radio talk show A La Shanghai Ren (We Shanghai people) painted a less-gloomy picture.

The program, which has aired on Shanghai East Radio Station every day from 6 to 7 pm for nearly two decades, features a male and a female anchor chatting about domestic trivialities, speaking exclusively in the local tongue. The show has long been a favorite of office workers killing time as they travel home, and families looking for entertainment during dinner.

"The fluency and accuracy (of spoken Shanghainese) may be declining, but there is keen interest in learning it," said Shen, who has hosted the show since just after it began in 1995.

At an event hosted by the program in mid-January, children and adults were invited to participate in a dialect contest. The response was overwhelming: hundreds of families filled the sleek and spacious hall of a Shanghai shopping mall, babbling and bumbling as if they were attending a language school.

"Many people are talking about the authenticity of the dialect spoken today, but I think what matters more is the fact that it's still being spoken. There is also the law of 'survival-of-the-fittest' in terms of linguistics. What is considered standard today might have been pidgin decades ago," said Shen, whose Shanghainese was "standardized" when she studied at the Shanghai Traditional Opera School.

Shen added that the program has been on and off for the past two decades (there is a complicated bureaucracy by which radio or TV programs obtain official approval to use dialects as official languages), and the support and enthusiasm of the audience is one of the major reasons for its continuing popularity.

The 41-year-old Shanghai native recalled that during her early years at school, she was chosen as the "Mandarin popularizer" in her class, supervising her classmates in spoken Mandarin, both in and outside the classroom.

"It's quite interesting to see how the situation has reversed within less than half a century," she said.