Amid city babble, an old tongue sings again

Updated 2017-10-04 16:01:52 China Daily
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In today's globalization the decline of Shanghai dialect, whose origins are rooted in a dialect used more than 3,200 years ago, is neither new nor unusual.

In today's globalization the decline of Shanghai dialect, whose origins are rooted in a dialect used more than 3,200 years ago, is neither new nor unusual.

Those passionate about Shanghai dialect are intent on ensuring that eventually it will have the last word

Zhang Fushan, 15, was born to parents who are both Shanghai natives. However, he could not speak Shanghainese properly until in recent years when he started attending middle school.

Even though Shanghai dialect is his mother tongue, "my pronunciation was bad", Zhang says, referring to when he was enrolled in Huimin Middle School, Yangpu district, four years ago.

He said he thinks this was the result of a lack of practice once he started going to kindergarten and later school, where speaking standard Chinese is compulsory. The less he spoke the dialect, the worse his pronunciation became, he said.

He had thought he might eventually abandon using the dialect when he entered middle school, but it has a club that helps students learn and practice the most authentic Shanghai dialect.

The club, called Shanghai Culture Experience Innovation Laboratory, gives students the chance to learn and practice through interactive multimedia programs or from linguists who teach folktales, rhymes, riddles and even operas in Shanghainese.

Zhang is an active member and can now recite many folktales in dialect. Being able to speak his mother tongue properly has given him "a great sense of relief and belonging", he said.

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Students of Huimin Middle School in a Shanghai-dialect class.

Students of Huimin Middle School in a Shanghai-dialect class.

Zhang is typical of many young people in Shanghai whose limited ability to speak dialect has become the norm and raised concerns that the country's financial center will lose its native tongue. Linguists, scholars, political advisers and residents have rallied to rescue the dialect from extinction, but their success in that endeavor remains far from assured.

Shanghai dialect can trace its roots to the Wu dialect, one of China's oldest spoken languages, in use for more than 3,200 years. It has about 70 million speakers in areas around Shanghai and has its own grammar and vocabulary. Before the 1990s the dialect was widely used as the major language in Shanghai, equivalent to Cantonese in Hong Kong. Anyone speaking Mandarin in Shanghai was looked down on as provincial.

However, in recent decades, as the country's commercial capital has grown, the huge influx of people from other cities and countries has marginalized the city's native tongue. About 40 percent of the city's 24 million population were born other than in Shanghai.

The use of Mandarin has expanded not only among the migrant population but also among natives since the country began a nationwide campaign in 1992 to encourage its use in classrooms. In Shanghai, the campaign reached its peak between 1998 and 2008, when many schools banned the use of dialects, says Ding Dimeng, a retired professor of linguistics at Shanghai University who is keen on reviving Shanghainese.

Li Mengqian, 27, says that when she was in primary school in about 2000"we were not allowed to speak Shanghai dialect at school".

There were even students and teachers who monitored their use of language at school. If anyone was found speaking dialect they were ordered to desist, Li says.

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