local languages

June 14th, 2010

There’s an interesting post at Luqiu Luwei’s blog that starts with a puzzling scene: She’s at a gathering of friends and relatives in Shanghai, they’re chatting, but something just feels odd:


…thinking it over, it was because these typical Shanghainese born and raised were using Mandarin to chat…

Pick all the holes in that translation you want, but I think the point is clear enough. And so why was this group of Shanghainese speaking Mandarin? There is nothing in the anecdote to suggest anybody from outside Shanghai was present. For the sake of the kids, it turns out, with whom they communicate in Mandarin.

Sidenote: Luqiu Luwei seems to use 普通话 and 国语 interchangeably.

So why are these Shanghainese parents only speaking to their kids in Mandarin? Ms Luqiu can’t seem to figure it out herself, but does offer two possible reasons. One is that the parents and teachers may be concerned that if they speak Shanghainese, the kids won’t get a solid enough grasp of Mandarin. Another is that it may somehow affect their ability to learn a foreign language. But this makes no sense, she says, when compared with the situation in Hong Kong, where the goal is for students to grasp two written and three spoken languages. Written Chinese and English, and spoken Cantonese, Mandarin and English, just in case anybody feels the need to ask.

She also points out the importance of language to culture, and local languages to local cultures, and ends her piece with this:

不敢想像,有一天,香港的所有电视台,电台,电影,还有所有的香港人,都开始不说粤语了,虽然我知道,我身边就有不少人希望有这样的一天,因为他们拒绝学 习粤语,甚至觉得,正是这种语言的隔阂,让他们觉得无法融入这个城市,做一个香港人.而他们把这些,归咎于这个城市透过语言来制造这样的疏离感.

I don’t dare imagine that one day all of Hong Kong’s TV stations, radio stations, films, and all the Hong Kong people, will all stop speaking Cantonese, although I know that there’s no shortage of people around me who hope for such a day, because they refuse to learn Cantonese, even feeling that this language is a barrier that makes them feel they have no way to integrate into the city and be a Hong Konger. And this they blame on the city for creating this sense of alienation through language.

我倒觉得,如果他们的思维能够掉转一下,先把自己当成香港人,把这个城市真正当成自己的家,那么,他们自然而然的会接受这种对他们来说陌生的语言,因为这 是这个城市的一部分,也是香港人这个身分的一部分.这样的道理,在其他的城市,甚至国家,都是一样.

Instead I think that if they can turn their thinking around, first think of themselves as Hong Kongers, truly think of Hong Kong as their home, they will naturally accept this language they find strange, because it’s a part of the city and a part of Hong Kongers’ identity. This principle is the same in other cities, even countries.

Y’know, I’m inclined to agree, especially with that last paragraph. I would add that it applies to expats, too. I’ve met too many here who simply refuse to learn even standard Mandarin. I’ve heard excuse after excuse after excuse. I’ve only met one expat in all this decade I’ve spent in China whose reason for not learning the language I respect (although I suspect there are others in similar positions)- his job meant he simply spent far too much time on the road at too irregular intervals for too irregular periods of time for him to sign up for lessons. But that’s a topic for another rant….

Like Ms Luqiu, I am puzzled as to why Shanghainese parents in Shanghai would not teach their kids Shanghainese. I can understand the two possible reasons she puts forward, considering just how much sheer ignorance about language there is out there – it’s one of the few resources to rival human stupidity in its abundance – but I agree that neither possible reason is valid. I like her comparison with Hong Kong, but I would say that it seems fair to me to assume that most people in this world grow up at least bilingual. I mean, look at the sheer number of countries around the world with multiple languages.

Which reminds me: When I was a student at Otago University, I had several friends from Singapore and Malaysia who expressed amazement that I was studying three foreign languages. I could not understand why they were so amazed, since they’d all been raised polyglots (English/Singlish/Mandarin/Hokkien seemed to be a common combination, although at the time I knew almost nothing about the Chinese language(s), so I can’t be certain).

I have also been known to point out to my students that many of them are at least trilingual, speaking their hometown’s dialect, Mandarin, and English.

I also totally agree with her points about the importance of language to culture and identity. New Zealand English has incorporated a lot of Maori words because many Maori cultural concepts have no possible English word to match them. Words like ‘mana’ and ‘tapu’ simply have too many implications to be translated neatly into one English word. New English words have been coined in New Zealand to fit concepts developing in New Zealand culture. Local cultural concepts need local words to express them. The same applies to every other dialect of every other language.

My wife speaks Yanqing dialect when talking to her family and standard Mandarin when talking to me and everybody else – well, English when talking to foreigners who don’t speak Chinese, and a mixture of standard Mandarin and English when talking to foreigners with a limited command of Chinese. I once had a colleague from New York who would speak with a mild New York accent most of the time. You could tell when she’d just been on the phone with her family, because her accent would suddenly be so strong you’d need a chainsaw to cut through it. Not long ago I met a Chinese man who lives in New Zealand who asked if we could please speak Chinese, as it felt too weird speaking English in his home country. Fair enough. Put any two people from the same place together and allow them to chat freely, and before long they’ll revert to their hometown’s dialect, regardless of what language the conversation began in. Why? Every aspect of language – accent, grammar, dialect, idiom, choice of writing system, even spelling – expresses something of the speaker’s (or writer’s) identity, both in relation to themselves and in relation to those they are communicating with.

What is a Shanghainese who can not speak Shanghainese? What is a Hong Konger who can not speak Cantonese? Or, in other words:

Why on earth would Shanghainese parents not teach their children Shanghainese?


When you move to a new place, why would you not learn the local language?

41 Responses to “local languages”

  1. Kellen Says:

    I completely agree. People constantly ask me why I’m interested in Shanghainese to the extent that I am. My answer is that, at least for now, it’s my home. It would be odd to me to not make at least some effort.

    I absolutely detest the decision by parents to not teach their children the language. I can’t fathom why they would think that this was a good idea, aside from the ignorance of language you mentioned. And I think that nails it. I’ve spoken to people who think if they teach their kids Wu then their Mandarin won’t be as good, which is a load of crap.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Kellen, just how common is it these days for Shanghainese parents to not teach their kids Wu?

  3. Kellen Says:

    I can only give anecdotal evidence. Nothing that would be of any statistical value. However I believe it’s pretty common. I know one Shanghainese who, when he has kids, is determined to teach them Shanghainese. He’s the only one I’ve spoken to recently who felt this way. A large part of his reasoning, aside from what’s been mentioned in your post, is the fact that none of his friends feel the same way and he finds that saddening.

    I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve seen couple or small groups of friends moving through the supermarket speaking Shanghainese to each other and Mandarin to the children in tow. It’s quite common.

  4. wangbo Says:

    Hard stats would be interesting to see, but by the sounds of it, they wouldn’t paint a pretty picture.

  5. Kellen Says:

    I agree it’d be interesting to see. If I can secure funding I’ll do a survey of my neighbourhood kids.

  6. jaap holm Says:

    What about han chinese in xinjiang? Most (and i mean most) refuse to learn the local language, even those who are born there. There is a mentality that as the victor (greater culture or whatever) there is no need for that and the locals should adjust.

  7. wangbo Says:

    Fair point, jaap. Regards Xinjiang, I have heard that those Han who moved there in the 50s tended to learn the local languages and cultures, while those who’ve moved there since reform and opening up are the ones who tend to refuse to learn, as you describe. Any truth to that?

  8. Kellen Says:

    I’ve seen that at least. I know older people here in Shanghai who went there for work and now speak Uyghur well into their old age. One, a relative of a friend, does so regularly having a number of Uyghur friends here.

    Meanwhile I have classmates or former students who were born there and know no more Uyghur than the average Shanghairen who’s never left the city.

  9. Potomacker Says:

    Very good analytical and speculative piece. When I started teaching English in China, I was struck by the difficulties that students had when learning, what seemed to me their third language.
    I came to learn two lessons that helped me better understand their challenge. The first is that many of my students in that eastern corner of Shandong had never learned standard guoyu. They could understand it, sing along with popular songs, and use it to a limited degree, but in that environment, surrounded by other speakers of a regional dialect, they were never pressed to become proficient speakers. One student who followed my advice to drop out found himself a job in Singapore where the intent as to develop his English speaking skills. He confided in me that there outside of mainland China, he finally was forced to speak standard putonghua.
    Following my own observations, I would like to offer an interpretation of the astonishment expressed by polyglots from the Malay peninsula as to your studying several languages. In spite of years spent studying English, Chinese students never learn how to study, in general, languages, in specific. They learn enough to get answers right on multiple choices tests, but they don’t learn any system, as you and I did in university, as to how to learn a second, third, etc. language.
    In rural and urban schools all over China, there are classrooms full of students speaking local dialect impressed upon to learn English while they are expected to learn guoyo, arguably a much more practical skill for their futures, on their own. Yet most never will do so, because, just as with English learning, they are never taught how to do so.

  10. wangbo Says:

    @Kellen: In a way, it’s unfortunate that those older people returned to Shanghai. They could’ve served as good role models for younger generations of migrants to Xinjiang… in theory, at least.

    @Potomacker: Interesting observation. I have had students comment about how they couldn’t understand each other when they first arrived at university because they all spoke with at least local accents. Perhaps increasing mobility around the country will help to improve people’s ability with standard Mandarin?

    I’m not entirely sure I was ever taught how to study, although I would agree that language teaching methodology was much better in New Zealand when I was in school than has generally been the case in China.

  11. wailun Says:

    why do some shanghainese want their child to speak proper putonghua and less shanghainese? there is no mystery here. firstly, putonghua or mandarin is the standard language in china and its proficiency is critical to one’s professional career and good communicative skill. have you been in a presentation where the person speaks poor mandarin? it’s a complete turn-off.

    secondly, many shanghainese are very parochial and therefore, it is only a small minority group of parents that emphasizes putonghua over shanghainese. it is these parents who are more open to outside cultures and hope their children will grow up being more open and knowledgeable of the outside world. so don’t criticise these parents – they know what they are doing.

    thirdly, it’s a complete myth and constant local hystery that shanghainese are not speaking their own dialect. in fact, if you’ve lived in shanghai for a while, you will realize that most shanghainese prefer to speak their own dialect even when there are other chinese around, causing much consternation. just listen around your office. shanghainese are very parachial, elitist and tend to look down on all other chinese. one way of excluding outsiders is to speak the local dialect. see what happens when you get into a altercation.

    fourthly, as some of you have rightly mentioned, it is not possble for a shanghainese to forget their dialect. it’s in their DNA so even if they speak mandarin all the time, they can easily switch back to shanghainese. it’s a comlete red herring spun by some afraid of losing this cultural supremacy.

  12. Kellen Says:

    Wailun: Aside from your own obvious dislike of the Shanghainese, much of what you said I must disagree with.

    have you been in a presentation where the person speaks poor mandarin? it’s a complete turn-off.
    I most definitely have. And yet their poor Mandarin can not be said to be a result of them speaking Shanghainese or Gan or any other 方言. You speak poor Mandarin because you’ve not bothered to learn the formal language, just as I know many native English speakers who speak poor English despite not knowing another language. And I know countless Wu speakers who also have excellent 普通话. I strongly believe the connection between speaking poor Mandarin and speaking a 方言 is a complete myth.

    it is only a small minority group of parents that emphasizes putonghua over shanghainese.

    I don’t know how you could know that in any statistically valid manner unless you know of some study of which I don’t know. That said, were we to look at the educated Shanghainese I think we’d see a majority pushing Mandarin on their children over Wu.

    it is not possble for a shanghainese to forget their dialect. it’s in their DNA so even if they speak mandarin all the time, they can easily switch back to shanghainese.

    I’m going to assume the DNA comment is hyperbole. It’s still possible to ‘forget’ or at least to become rusty enough that they are more comfortable in Mandarin. I’ve seen it countless times. I have acquaintances who find it not so easy to switch back to Shanghainese and often speak Mandarin even to childhood friends. Which makes sense if they’ve been speaking Mandarin in school.

    What exactly is the cultural supremacy of which you speak? You mean the supremacy of Wu over Mandarin? Good luck with that.

  13. wangbo Says:

    @Wailun, although we do all have a hardwired capacity for language, no one specific language is in anybody’s DNA. If some, even a small minority, Shanghainese parents refuse to teach their children Shanghainese for fear of it interfering with their ability to learn Putonghua, then some Shanghainese children are either having to learn Shanghainese from their peers (perhaps not such a good thing, considering all education is supposed to be conducted in Putonghua) or they will grow up isolated from their local culture and society. This is no good for their sense of identity and belonging.

    This reminds me of the large migration of Maori from rural to urban areas in New Zealand in the 50s and 60s, when many Maori parents refused to teach their kids Maori for reasons essentially identical to your first and second points. “To succeed in a Pakeha world, our kids will have to speak Pakeha”, they thought. The result was a lot of alienated youth, cut off from their roots, and yet no more “Pakeha” than their parents. Not a good situation.

    I understand that your “in their DNA” comment is metaphorical, but my point is that parents’ choices regarding language can have a huge impact on their children. Although there are, as @Potomacker points out, serious problems with the Chinese education system, there is no logical reason why a parents’ choice to speak any one language or another at home should impact the child’s ability to learn standard Mandarin – especially these days with the still very imperfect but gradually improving education system, nationwide TV, and migration around China. There are very serious potential problems that could very easily arise from Shanghainese parents refusing to teach their kids Shanghainese.

    Add on top of that all the usual arguments for preserving local languages and cultures, with which, you may have guessed, I tend to agree.

    I’m well aware of the reputation of Shanghainese snobbiness, and have heard the usual anecdotes to “prove” it. I’ve never been to Shanghai myself (although my wife has, and she loathes the place thanks to that experience), so I won’t comment on the truthfulness or otherwise of the stereotype, except to say that I generally distrust stereotypes. I will say, though, that if there are Shanghainese language snobs who really do behave in the way you describe, then I find such attitudes to be just as vile as those of Han who move to Xinjiang and refuse to learn the local languages, or foreigners who come to China and refuse to learn Chinese.

    And I see @Kellen has jumped in with some good points as I’ve been typing this comment.

  14. wailun Says:

    kellen is very presumptious to think that I “obviously dislike” shanghainese people just because i make some sharp observations. my wife and her family are all shanghainese and almost all the people i socialize day to day with are shanghainese. plus i have been living in shanghai for more than 15 years and i experienced much in this city. i am not against any local dialect since i am also a cantonese speaker and firm believer in preservation of local culture, customs and language.

    the issue raised was why shanghainese parents do not want to speak or teach shanghainese to their children and my observation is it is a myth and fallacy. i know because i live and work amongst them. shanghainese are very, very proud of their culture and dialect, and they will not stop speaking shanghainese. to suggest that shanghainese are not speaking or speaking less shanghainese and stwitching to mandarin is truly laughable. it’s like saying the french are switching to english. all shanghainese parents/grandparents speak shanghainese to their children thus ensuring that this dialect is well preserved while a smaller minority of tertiary-educated white collar parents are trying to get their children to speak more mandarin so that they get ahead in life. this does not mean they disallow their children to speak shanghainese. these parents simply want their children to be proficient in putonghua. i personally know parents like that. do not be naive and jump to wrong conclusions. shanghainese are very proud of their culture, heritage and dialect (and rightly so). such parents emphasize putonghua and english for their children’s future but does not mean they have turned their back on shamghainese.

  15. Kellen Says:

    Please feel free to address me directly. I’m sure no one will mind. And forgive my apparent presumption. Your comment seemed to have a pretty clear undercurrent of general dislike for the Shanghainese for their supposed superiority complex, a dislike that is common among a number of my 外地人 friends.

    all shanghainese parents/grandparents speak shanghainese to their children
    I’m sorry but that’s just simply not true. You can not say “all” in this case. First, because you don’t know all of the Shanghainese in Shanghai, and second, because I know quite a few who do not or will not speak Shanghainese to their children. We can argue all day about the percentage that does and that that does not, but you simply cannot say they all do just as I cannot (and would not) say they all do not.

  16. wangbo Says:

    @Wailun: Thank you. That is a much clearer elucidation of the points you made in your first comment. It seems we agree on most points, although, like Kellen, I would like to see hard stats on how many Shanghainese (and which ones) are not teaching their kids the local language. I am intrigued by your statement “tertiary-educated white collar parents”, as this seems to imply there is a certain class element to it.

  17. wangbo Says:

    @Kellen, fair points all. Now about that funding for a proper study…. I really would like to see hard data on this and the status of all (if possible) local languages across China.

  18. Kellen Says:

    Believe me, as would I. I said we could very much argue about the numbers all day, but I’d really rather just see the numbers and be done with it. Unfortunately I know of no such study, nor do I have the means to conduct one. If I do find such a survey I’ll be sure to let you know.

  19. wailun Says:

    to wang bo: your example about the maoris is very similar to several ethnic minorities in china – in my travels around china, i noticed many young tibetans, mongolians, etc. are not proficient in their own language while some like the manchu, have ceased to speak their own language. however, it is not the case with shanghainese. although the education ministry requires putonghua to be taught and spoken exclusively in school, in shanghai (and guangdong, etc.) however, students speak shanghainese with mandarin which compels a small group of parents to insist their children to speak more putonghua to avoid the habit of mingling dialects. we can debate the right or wrong of this all day but it does not mean shanghainese are disallowing their children to speak shanghainese. all shanghainese are very, very proud (and most rightly so) of their language, culture and heritage, and there is no question of abandoning them.

  20. Kellen Says:

    There’s that “all” word again. Regardless of how many, you cannot say all. If you’re insistent on it then I can direct you to a number of people who are not proud of their language, culture or heritage (if by that we mean that of Shanghai).

    Anyway. I’m not sure “disallow” is the right word for this. It’s more simply neglecting to use it with them. It’s not as though the toddler is dying to speak it but the parents are spanking him each time he says 侬.

  21. wailun Says:

    hi wang bo, i don’t think it is a class element thing. like all parents, i would like my kids to get ahead in life and we parents may do strange things from time to time. chinese always recognize the value of education and in recent times, we’ve added language(s) to that. sure, i want my kids to be very proficient in putonghua, english and maybe even one more prominent language, but i am not going to forsake my own dialect. it’s inconceivable !!! in my case, my children were poor in learning cantonese much to my disappointment. can’t force them.

  22. wangbo Says:

    @Wailun, thanks for the clarification. But like Kellen, I am concerned about your use of “all Shanghainese”. Clearly there are some Shanghainese who are not teaching there kids Shanghainese. I really hope that you are right in that they are a tiny minority of the population of Shanghai, but it does still concern me. And numbers, we need numbers…

  23. wailun Says:

    to kellen: i can confidently say “all shanghainese” are proud of their language, culture and heritage because in my 16 years in shanghai i have not come across a single shanghainese who is not. maybe you have. this has been my experience and nothing has change that yet.

  24. wangbo Says:

    @Wailun, understood. But when you said “tertiary-educated white collar parents”, I saw ‘class’ in at least a rather loose sense of the term. In any case, I like your attitude. One can’t force the kids, but one can set clear expectations and give them the opportunities to learn.

  25. Porfiriy Says:

    I’m a Xinjiang blogger and I do have this annoying tendency going around from blog to blog intruding with my “Xinjiang” perspective, so forgive me for interjecting with observations that may or may not seem tangential. :)

    Based on my experience among the Uyghurs, and my admittedly outsider view of their own struggles regarding their mother tongue and Mandarin, I think it’s important, even when considering Shanghairen, to remember and consider the concept of the modern Chinese nation when asking questions like, “Why aren’t Shanghainese teaching their children Shanghaihua?”

    Perhaps it’s cliche and eyeroll-inducing to invoke the fact that the PRC is an authoritarian state lead by a Party with political interest to extend its rule over social, cultural, and, indeed, linguistic issues. But as chic as it has become among bloggers to question this trope, I insist that it nevertheless usefully informs discussions about language/minority language discussions. The ideology of the state, irrespective of whether or not “Communism” as a philosophy is being implemented in today’s market crazy China, is heavily dependent on the concept of Zhonghua Minzu, of the “people/nationalities/ethnicities of China.” This is of particular importance to a governmental entity that bases its legitimacy on having a mandate of rule that is *not* based on democratic elections. The idea is that there is a people, or collection of peoples, that can be categorized as “Zhonghua Minzu” and therefore have some sort of shared identity and shared interests that can be served by a government that knows those interests intimately – the Party.

    What does this have to do with language? Obviously since the dawn of recorded history language has been one of the most obvious and evident markers of who a people “are” and “are not.” If you spoke the language, you’re one of “us”, if you didn’t, obviously you were someone else. In our modern postmodern world, obviously it’s not as “simple” as this Stone-Agey view, it nevertheless is high priority among entities with “nation-building” agendas to get everyone on the same page, particularly by encouraging people to speak the same language. It goes without saying that this principle is quite visible in China (as it is visible in other countries, like the US, for similar *and* different reasons); people throughout the country are encouraged to learn putonghua.

    This doesn’t necessarily equate to *excluding* or displacing a local dialect, but it does raise the question: who considers themselves Chinese? Or, more poignantly, who is proud to be Chinese? Who considers themselves a voluntary member of the modern nation-building project that is the PRC? Who is invested in this idea that China must rise again from its century of humiliation, that being a world powerhouse is part of China’s destiny? The hasty answer to these questions, of course, are mainland Chinese citizens who identify mostly with Han language and culture.

    It’s my guess that Shanghainese don’t teach their children Shanghai partly because with the founding of the PRC in the memory of their parents, and the turbulant identity-seeking years of the great leap forward, cultural revolution, and Ti@nanm3nt square m@ssacre in their own memory, middle-aged Shanghainese parents have reached a point where they are satisfied members of the Chinese nation; they approve from it, and have benefited from it (particularly in prosperous Shanghai). Their children are Chinese, and their language “should” be putonghua. While there still are plenty of reasons to take pride in and emphasize one’s identity as a “Shanghairen” (in contrast to say, someone from Beijing, or from Dongbei), that identity is no longer predicated on language, is more dependent on culture or outlook. When it comes to language, “We’re all Chinese.”

    I speak from personal experience, too. My parents were immigrants from a SE Asian country in the 70s. Much to my massive, crushing regret, they chose not to teach me their language. When I talk to them alot of it has much to do with their ideas of what it means to “be american” and to “grow up american.”

    And finally, I think my (hastily constructed) hypothesis also can comment on Uyghurs and Hong Kongers. Among both these peoples, there not only is a reason not to see oneselves as part of the *modern” Chinese nation state (e.g. the PRC), there are in face incentives to *resist* it. Both of these peoples have strong incentives to associate their identities with cultures far removed from modern Han culture, and even, in the case of the Uyghurs, the broader “ancient Chinese culture” that extends from today to Confucius. It strikes me as totally logical that Uyghurs would resist learning Mandarin and infuriated at ongoing encroachments of Mandarin into their education systems. They don’t want it. They don’t want to be “Chinese.” I’m not 1/50th familiar with Hong Kong as I am with the Uyghurs, but I think the same principle applies. Hong Kongers can relate to “Chinese identity” more so than Uyghurs, but they still base their linguistic preferences on a proud, Hong Kong identity that frequently defines itself against the values of the PRC (a la censorship in the name of social stability, an unelected vanguard party that “represents” the 3 whatevers). And so they’ll keep on learning Cantonese.

  26. Katie Says:

    Interesting. A few further thoughts:

    I too would love to see the statistics on this. (If they’re not out there, does anyone need a dissertation topic?)

    If this post and Kellen’s anecdotes are representative, though, it doesn’t really surprise me at all. I know very few children of Chinese immigrants in the US who can speak Chinese fluently, much less read or write it. (This may be changing? I’ve observed plenty of very recent immigrants who speak Chinese to their young children. Or it may be that this changes once their children start school. Need statistics!) Anyway, in that context, English is the language you need to get ahead, so English is the language that’s spoken, even if the parents’ English isn’t particularly good. While I admire their (typically effective) dedication to their children’s success, I do wish they realized that their children might be even more successful if they were bilingual. I wonder why parents fail to notice that their kids don’t really learn English from them anyway–as in, they sound a whole lot more like their peers than their parents.

    Which leads to another question–which language do kids in Shanghai use to speak to each other? If it’s Mandarin, then (in the sense of long term language preservation) it hardly matters whether they know how to speak Shanghainese or not.

  27. wangbo Says:

    Wow, this has sparked quite the discussion.

    @Porfiriy: Sorry, but I took the liberty of altering the spelling on a couple of potentially sensitive words. But thanks for the perspectives. I like your nation-building, “we all speak the same language” idea, as it brings to mind several cases where a minority language is pushed at least in part as nation-building. New Zealand, Ireland and Wales spring to mind. Then there is the granddaddy of all “one language” countries, France, where the dialect of the Ile de France region was enforced nationwide following the revolution.

    @Katie: I have read of studies that show that the children of immigrants (not just Chinese, but all immigrants) in the US for the most part do assimilate very rapidly, generally losing their parents’ language. I’m not sure how much of that is due to parental choice and how much is social pressure, but the fact remains that a lot of that right wing anti-immigrant ranting is just straight out factually incorrect. It certainly would be worth some time on Google Scholar trying to find the studies, but unfortunately I have a document to translate right now.

  28. Kellen Says:

    At least in my experience, the language little kids use to speak to each other is Mandarin. That’s what they use in school where they met each other, and it stuck.

    I agree, for being able to communicate and living your life, it doesn’t matter. But for people like me who’ve spent a great deal of time on Shanghainese, we want to see it not be wiped out. In a way, the loss of a few dozen species doesn’t really matter. A few million more years and the diversity will have been replaced. It doesn’t really matter if everyone in the world speaks sterilised English. But I’d hate to see it happen.

    That said, I’m sure it will, as far as Shanghainese is concerned.

  29. wangbo Says:

    @Kellen, I hope you’re wrong. I hope Wailun is right that it is just a small group of university-educated white collar types not teaching their kids Shanghainese. I can’t help but see language and culture as being somewhat like genetics in at least one point: Diversity is strength.

    But if the kids are speaking Mandarin at school, then, well, Porfiriy’s point about nation building comes to mind. It seems the nation builders are having some success. At what cost? I have to ask.

  30. Kellen Says:

    I most certainly hope I’m wrong. But given what I’ve seen in the last few years of looking at Wu, I’m less convinced that I may be wrong.

    It’s not that I think it will disappear all of a sudden. Instead I think it will be a mix of more Mandarin influence on the language (already visible in the last generation of speakers in Gaochun, Nanjing) and the number of kids being encourages to speak it diminishing.

    Again, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I gave a talk on this a couple weeks back and we had some good discussion on the topic. Maybe I’ll try to get the audio up on my Wu site.

  31. wangbo Says:

    I guess a certain amount of Mandarin influence is inevitable, and not necessarily bad. And I guess change is the only constant. But it is a worrying picture you paint.

    I would be interested in listening to that talk of yours.

  32. Katie Says:

    @Kellen–I agree with you completely about language preservation. Guess I wasn’t too clear. By “hardly matters” I meant that, in the general scheme of things, if the kids don’t speak the language to each other, then even if they know it, they’re the last generation who will. You’re just prolonging things by another 30 years or so.

    As to US immigrants, I suppose this is another “hardly matters in general scheme of things” sort of thing, but my own observation is that Spanish speakers manage to preserve their language at least to the second generation, not so sure about the third. Maybe I should look up those studies. The data is almost certainly out there.

  33. xie shihao Says:

    I am a native of Shanghai and I went to Beijing area to study Mandarin and came to USA in 1947 as a graduate student.

    I speak Shanghainese(Wu dialect) and Mandarin fluently and taught both at http://www.Dictyoh.net,the gateway to global languages.

    I believe we speak Shanghainese to folks in Shanghai and speak Mandarin to folks in other parts of China.

    “A Glimpse of the Chinese Language” in English is available free of charge as a public service in pdf file at http://www.rand.org. If you wish to refresh your Mandarin and learn English,you can obtain a copy without cost. Francis Shieh,the author of “A Glimpse of the Chinese Language” in English. You may visit http://www.Google.com and search francis shieh to read my brief biography if interested. June 17, 2010 at 1.20 p.m. in Maryland,USA.

  34. Uln Says:

    @Kellen – I have observed a similar phenomenon in central Shanghai, including some of my colleagues who educate their children in mandarin. But I don’t think the majority of families is doing this.

    The problem is, even if it is only a 10%, they are usually the richer/posher Shanghainese, and these kids will be in positions of leadership in the future. In one generation there is likely to be a social shift where Shanghainese loses its status of prestige, and people will be ashamed of speaking it.

    Another huge force against Shanghainese is the strong influx of migrants. In fact, many suburbs in Shanghai are almost 100% mandarin speaking, as the original population is very diluted. Surprisingly, Shanghai central Lilongs have some of the highest concentration of Shanghainese speakers, because the square meter is way to high for migrants to buy in (rich Wenzhounese don’t care for Lilongs), and most of them still have the original families living in since the times of the liberation.

    Because of these 2 forces, Shanghainese is on its way to disappear in 2-3 decades unless there is a radical change of attitude towards it. This is not surprising, it is only human that people don’t value things that are common. Shanghainese is taken for granted because so many million are still speaking it, only when it will be half lost we will see laments and initiatives to revive it. Then it will be too late, of course.

    One thing I wonder is: why do Cantonese stick to their language much more than Shanghainese? I am pretty sure it has a lot to do with the special status of HongKong.

  35. Kellen Says:

    Uln: I agree.

    I think the reason for the state of Shanghainese vs Cantonese in Hong Kong is due to foreign occupation, in both cases. Had the foreigners stayed in Shanghai longer, or had they left Hong Kong earlier, things would be different.

  36. wangbo Says:

    @Uln, re your final question: Isn’t there also a certain Hong Kong sense of superiority vis a vis the Mainland? Also, a vibrant Cantonese-language pop culture.

    Perhaps as Shanghai develops, that stereotypical Shanghai attitude towards the hinterland and a growing Shanghainese pop culture will help revive attitudes towards their dialect. Just an idea, purely for the sake of playing optimistic devil’s advocate.

  37. wangbo Says:

    @Kellen: Could you explain that, please? Clearly foreign occupation is important to the history of both cities, but how has the difference in the length of occupation affected the language so drastically?

  38. Kellen Says:

    I realise this is a slight oversimplification which ignores some other important factors, however,

    The British controlled HK for long enough and during crucial enough years that Mandarin was largely kept out until the last couple decades. The foreign control of sections of Shanghai, which at the time were essentially all of Shanghai outside the old city wall, ended early enough for the modernising of China to kick in linguistically. Had extraterritoriality lasted until the end of the century (which I’m glad didn’t happen, for the record), I think Wu would have found a similar enclave. Had England not had HK for the last half of the century, I think Cantonese would be far less a presence than it is now.

    Of course, had the policy of extraterritoriality never happened, I’d probably be living in Ningbo right now, thinking 沪都 might be a nice place to take a day trip and see the canals.

    Again I realise it’s not quite that simple but I don’t have so much time to write more so please have mercy in your responses. And for the record I think extraterritoriality is a stupid policy and I am in no way defending it’s application here.

  39. wangbo Says:

    Thank you, Kellen, that was a perfectly adequate response. I guess you must have exams coming up, so I certainly don’t want to overtax you. Actually, I suspected that would be the reasoning, I just wanted to get it out in the open.

  40. CHINABLÄTTER » Blog Archive » Local languages Says:

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  41. Kate Says:

    Very interesting post. I think it’s a shame that many Shanghainese people are not teaching their kids Shanghainese. This is their language and heritage that they’re not passing down to their next generation…

    As for the people you mentioned who refuse to learn Cantonese (whether they’re Westerners or mainland Chinese) even though they live in Hong Kong, well, that’s their own choice – and a stupid one, at that. Hong Kong is a Cantonese speaking place, and those who don’t speak it will never truly be Hong Kongers. Maybe the Westerners don’t want to truly become Hong Kongers since many of them are only there for a few years, and Westerners have historically had a pattern of not learning the local language where they live, so this isn’t anything new. But for mainland Chinese who refuse to learn Cantonese despite living in Hong Kong… It’s the kind of stupid nationalistic bullshit that they’ve been fed by the PRC (the need to stamp out dialects in favour of the “national” language) and all I can say is that they’re just going to keep perpetuating their perceived status (by local Hong Kongers) as lesser “outsiders” who will never be “real” Hong Kongers. They can keep dreaming of the day Mandarin rules the day in HK, but it’s never going to happen, so it’s their own loss.