bilingualism, dialects

July 17th, 2010

Now that I’ve got that little lunchtime rant out of my system, here’s what I really wanted to blog about once I’d gotten the fuel into my system. Luqiu Luwei has another fascinating post on the subject of language, one that starts with bilingual education in Kashgar, then moves through Hong Kong and Singapore to the preservation of local languages.

Before I continue, I warn anybody who may be inspired to comment to read Note 2 at the end of this post very carefully before commenting.

On a recent trip to Xinjiang, she visited a bilingual primary school in Kashgar whose young teachers spoke perfectly standard Mandarin, while the principal struggled. It turns out the young teachers had been raised speaking Uighur at home, while they were put through an entirely Mandarin education, from primary school right through the minkaohan (minorities being taught and examined in Mandarin) high school. The result was that although they could speak Uighur, it was only after they became teachers that they started to learn how to write Uighur.

She then goes on to discuss all the linguistic and social issues this raises. The key common factor to all these decisions about language seems to be the children’s future. Although Uighur kids who learnt only Mandarin would find themselves cut off from a lot of their own culture and society, Uighur kids who speak only Uighur would find themselves at a much greater disadvantage and would find their future employment, cultural, social, indeed all opportunities seriously and tightly circumsribed, as Mandarin is still very much the dominant language in Xinjiang.

And so there are Uighur families who speak Uighur at home while having their children educated in Mandarin. Some of them, in order to ensure the kids’ fluency in Uighur, send their kids to spend weekends and summer and winter holidays with older relatives who do not speak Mandarin. And there are Uighur families who teach their children only Mandarin. Actually, when I lived in Tongzhou, I would regularly visit a family-run Xinjiang restaurant in which the adult family members spoke Uighur to each other, but only spoke in Uighur-accented Mandarin to their child/nephew/grandchild/boss’ son (as the case may be).

She then describes the bilingual education system as being one where all subjects are taught in Mandaring, but with Uighur added as a compulsory subject. She asked some locals if they were worried that this would lead the children to forget Uighur, but they were optimistic, as they still spoke Uighur at home. But the next generation? Would they turn out like those big city Uighur families in which only Mandarin is spoken? But my worry is that if maths, science, geography, literature and all those subjects are taught only in Mandarin, and Uighur taught seperately, Uighur could still come to be seen as an inferior, less prestigious language. How are these kids going to learn to talk about science in Uighur? When helping their own kids with their homework, they will have to switch to Mandarin. Uighur could easily become a language in which people conduct family and local life, but in which they are incapable of performing higher-level, more complex tasks involved with maths, science, literature and the arts. How will that encourage future generations to continue to speak the language of their ancestors?

But Hong Kong provides a positive example, Luqiu says, with its bilingual education system. She points out that Hong Kong’s students enrolled in the bilingual system have one huge advantage over those enrolled in its international schools, in that they are fluent in both Chinese and English. She also points out that Chinese and English share co-equal official status and government officials must be fluent in both. I should point out here that she uses the terms 中文 and 英文, so I presume that she means standard written Chinese and English. And I presume that she means said officials are fluent in written Chinese, written and spoken English, and spoken Cantonese and sometimes spoken Mandarin, as she comments that Hong Kong officials often have to speak in both Chinese (中文) and English and these days sometimes also Mandarin. But her point is that Hong Kong provides proof that bilingual education can produce people fluent in both languages (and even maybe a third!). I don’t know Hong Kong well enough to judge the validity of her argument, but I totally agree that there is no reason why bilingual education should fail to produce people equally fluent in at least two languages.

Looking at the delicate question of a language’s status and the direct relationship between its countries and peoples and the economy and politics, she turns to Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew’s decision to push Chinese (and here she switches to the term 华语) among the Chinese (华人) community. Apparently 70% of Singaporean Chinese families used English, and Lee said in 2006 that if Singapore’s Chinese-language environment would be extremely difficult to rebuild if it were lost. He even began to study Chinese himself in 2000, and Luqiu states that in 2001 he could already express himself in basic Chinese. His goal was to ensure that Singapore’s Chinese community would be able to continue to enjoy a Chinese-language environment in both private and public affairs. Her point is that bilingual education is not enough. Before, the gap in status between English and Chinese in Singapore was too great, leading to a drop in Chinese language abilities. True bilingualism is having an equal grasp of and fluency in both languages.

Actually, I’m surprised by this section of her post. My experience of Singaporeans, which predates Lee Kwan Yew’s push to popularise Chinese Luqiu reports, but not by much, is that they tend to be at least bilingual. Still, my knowledge of Singapore is even weaker than my knowledge of Hong Kong, having spent only a few hours in transit in Singapore’s airport feeling scared of the soldiers patrolling with SA80s in hand.

Then she moves to the preservation of local dialects, which Luqiu says should be easier than bilingual education, as the Chinese dialects (no! I’m not sorry, but I refuse to use that hideous, loathesome and redundant neologism “topolect”!) share a common script. I’m not entirely convinced by this, as I know Yanqinghua words for which I have never yet seen a character. But in any case, she moves on to argue for the preservation of China’s local dialects, using herself as an example, pointing out that when she was a child, she and her friends used standard Mandarin in class and Shanghainese for everything else, and that has never had any kind of deleterious effect on either her or her friends’ commands of either standard Mandarin or Shanghainese.

I find myself pretty much in full agreement with the ideas Luqiu expresses in her post. I can not see any reason why, provided local languages (including Uighur) and dialects share equal status, if different roles, with standard Mandarin, local dialects and languages should not be preserved while also furthering the spread of standard Mandarin. And come to think of it, I really do not have any more to add to my paraphrasing and summarising of Luqiu’s post.


1: I loathe the word “topolect” because it seems to me to be so utterly redundant, and for two reasons:

  1. China is hardly the only part of the world where the words “language” and “dialect” have been abused for political purposes. One could argue that if one were to be honest, “Norwegian”, “Danish” and “Swedish” are arbitrary political boundaries drawn around geographical groupings of the dialects of Norse, or that the English is a group of dialects of Plattdeutsch that somehow suffered a political separation from the dialects of Flanders, the Netherlands and northern Germany. One could play the same game with any group of dialects, languages, or any language family.
  2. I fail to see how the word “dialect” does not in and of itself comprise a geographical element. One does not speak of Cockney as some geographically-independent, purely class-based dialect of English. Cockney is the dialect of the working class people of London’s East End. The same principle applies to Scouse, Geordie, Noo Zild and Strine. How is Minnan any different? It’s not.

And like the various dialects of English, Minnan, too has spread itself through immigration (legal and otherwise) beyond some magical geographical limitation. So the word “dialect” includes both the geographical origin and linguistic unity of a dialect, whereas “topolect” seems to magically tie a form of speech to one place.

2, and read this before you comment: This post involves a subject which is very easily politicised. I have no interest in either engaging in or hosting a political discussion, as we all know that all such discussions in the blogosphere inevitably and quickly descend into a childish trollfest. Any and all political speech, regardless of the point of view expressed, will be removed from any comments that may be posted here, and comments that are of a purely political nature will be deleted. Repeat offenders will be marked as spam and banned. Keep your comments to the subjects of bilingual education and the preservation of local languages and dialects. This post is categorised, after all, as ‘Chinese study’ because it is written purely out of linguistic interest and a desire to further my own (and if I may allow myself the conceit, perhaps a few other people’s) knowledge of China’s languages and dialects. No further warning will be issued, and no appeals will be entertained for even the most fleeting of moments.

5 Responses to “bilingualism, dialects”

  1. bilingualism, dialects | CNN Breaking News Says:

    […] |Alltop RSS| Now that I’ve got that little lunchtime rant out of my system, here’s what I really wanted to blog about once I’d gotten the fuel into my system. Luqiu Luwei has another fascinating post on the subject of language, one that starts with bilingual education in Kashgar, then moves through Hong Kong and Singapore to […] Post Published: 17 July 2010 Author: CNN Breaking News Found in section: Uncategorized […]

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  3. Reggaefantastic Says:

    it was very interesting to read.
    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  4. Louisa Says:

    Very interesting post. It reminds me of how Chinese immigrants in America either refuse to speak to their kids in Chinese, so as to improve their English and their kids’ English for a better future, or only speak to their kids in Chinese but not teaching them written Chinese. I grew up speaking Chinese at home and learning English in school, which resulted in my fifth grade Chinese reading level (after intensive college study). Learning Chinese dialects is pretty much impossible in this case. Most of the people I know whose parents speak a dialect either cannot speak it themselves, understand it perfectly (this is my case), or know only rudimentary words. Since the official Chinese language is Mandarin, that’s what’s taught in Chinese schools here and that’s what spoken to others (Cantonese being an exception).

  5. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Louisa. I’ve met a wide variety of children of immigrants, from those who speak at most a phrase or two of their parents’ mother tongues to those who speak fluent Mandarin with a strong Taiwan accent, but are completely illiterate. I can understand the difficulties of maintaining ancestral languages and dialects in the diaspora, but here in China I have students who tell me their parents never taught them their local language or dialect, and they simply don’t know why. Sometimes it does seem as if Mandarin is overtaking the world – or the Chinese-speaking portion of it, anyway.