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Our love and hate of dialects

中国日报网 2016-06-07 16:33



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Writer: Raymond Zhou

Every time I visit my hometown, I get praised for something I take for granted - being able to speak the local dialect.

I spent the first 15 years of my life in that part of Zhejiang province and spoke nothing but that dialect. Sure, I learned putonghua in school, but it was a language we kids would use only when reciting texts. The downside was, my putonghua carries a slight accent that I cannot shake off even though I have been living in Beijing longer than in my hometown.

My attitude towards dialects has evolved over the years. I saw it as a form of impediment for communication. When I first arrived in Guangzhou for graduate study in the early 1980s, I could not understand a single word of Cantonese and even some teachers could not get themselves understood despite their efforts to speak putonghua. Forget about the granny whom I asked for directions.

So I wished the country's dialects would vanish and everyone could easily talk to one another. Be careful what you wish for, it may well come true. Well, the moment I realized my youthful wish is indeed coming true was when I overheard youngsters in my hometown conversing in putonghua even in leisure time. They can still understand the local dialect, but they do not have the willingness or ability to speak it. In another generation, the dialect will be gone.

Multiple it by thousands, even millions, of similar incidents and you'll get the bigger picture of what's happening to the spoken language of Chinese. No wonder some people have taken action to defend their local dialects.

Call it the victim of progress. In the old days with no televisions or highways, we had little chance to talk to those on the other side of the mountain, so we stuck to our little quaint way of speaking. Now that we can reach another province in an hour, we've realized our special ways are part of our collective linguistic wealth. Lao She's Beijing-based novels, Northeastern comedy, Hong Kong movies, among others, would not be possible without the respective dialects.

In the tug of war between unity and diversity, the trick is in balance. Without a unifying spoken language, we won't be able to talk across provinces or even villages. But if we all talk exactly alike, we would have forsaken the little something that marks us for the richness of each of us.

There is not much a government can do about such linguistic development. But the push for putonghua is more and more like the family planning policy as I see it. It started with good intention but it may have outgrown its necessity. Unlike my generation, the young has no problem mastering the spoken form of standard Chinese, but they may regret they did not grasp a variety that could have enriched them in expressiveness.

Just imagine. China's comedy scene would be so much more barren if all the dialect-based routines disappeared.



Our love and hate of dialects

Greg Fountain is a copy editor and occasional presenter for China Daily. Before moving to Beijing in January, 2016 he worked for newspapers in the Middle East and UK. He has an M.A in Print Journalism from the University of Sheffield, a B.A in English and History from the University of Reading.

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