China moves to save endangered minority languages

Updated 2017-12-10 13:02:15
An undated photo shows ethnic Hani students studying Hani language in a primary school class in southwest China's Yunnan Province. [File photo: Beijing News]

An undated photo shows ethnic Hani students studying Hani language in a primary school class in southwest China's Yunnan Province. [File photo: Beijing News]

As experts warned that the majority of the 130 languages spoken in China are now on the verge of extinction, both government and social groups have begun protection efforts, Beijing News reported.

Seven languages are being used by less than 100 people, while another 15 languages have just 100 to 1,000 speakers in China, according to a survey conducted by Sun Hongkai, a language expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The survey also showed that some minority languages have become extinct, such as Manchu and Khakas, while some like Hezhen have only a few elderly speakers.

The Hezhen ethnic minority in northeast China, with a population of 5,354 according to a 2010 census, faces severe challenges in passing down their language. "We have a small population, many of whom have married Han Chinese, so the Hezhen language is spoken much less," said Liu Lei, a Hezhen speaker and primary school teacher in Jiejinkou village, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.

To protect their culture, Liu teaches her students traditional dances, reinforcing their Hezhen identity. She said locals also make traditional fishskin dresses and fishbone souvenirs to boost tourism.

Li Songmei, from the Institute of Nationality Studies in Honghe Prefecture, comes from Luoma village in southwest China's Yunnan Province, where residents are primarily Hani ethnic minority. According to Li's recent survey, half of the villagers under 35 years old no longer speak Hani language. Li said many young Hani who work in cities prefer to speak Mandarin rather than their mother tongue.

Faced with the risk of losing their traditional languages, Li and her colleagues have set up Hani language classes for young people. Li has also organized chat groups on social messaging apps for them to exchange language learning experiences. Li said these young learners now can write in Hani language.

Local authorities and educational institutes have also taken proactive measures. Yunnan Minzu University has cooperated with the local government since 2012, setting up a program to enroll ethnic Hani students to study their language. After graduation, these young people become an important force to protect and promote Hani language.

Sun Hongkai said a national language resources protection project was launched in 2015, aiming to "record 3,000 common words and 100 sentences in every endangered minority language."

"Apart from recording endangered languages, passing them onto the next generation is most important," said Sun, suggesting that both the language and culture of every ethnic minority should be systematically protected.

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