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:
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.
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?