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How to make dialect hip for younger folks
2013-04-02
By Doug Young

AS an American living in China, one of the things I find completely different here is the vast number of local dialects throughout the country. In America everyone speaks English, even if it sometimes comes with regional accents and expressions that make understanding slightly challenging.

In China, by comparison, many dialects are often unintelligible to anyone besides people from the small areas where they are spoken. Many local languages are likely to become extinct in the next few decades as their speakers migrate to bigger cities and Mandarin becomes the language of choice.

International cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai have an advantage over smaller rivals in preserving this element of local culture, as many bigger places have big academic communities actively working to protect the dialect. Most of those academics are older folks who have admirable goals but don't know how to speak to a younger generation that's more interested in speaking more cosmopolitan Mandarin.

Against that backdrop, I was intrigued to read about a trio of 20- and 30-somethings who are trying to make the local Shanghai dialect appeal to younger people with their recently developed web series, "Cool! Shanghai." I had to ask quite a few people before deciding on how to even translate the word "Cool" in the program's title, since the actual word, pronounced like dia, is a very local one with no Mandarin equivalent.

The trio behind the program consists of Panda, a 32-year-old interior designer; Gang Laoshi (Teacher Gang), a 25-year-old elementary school teacher; and 32-year-old Tong Laoshi (Teacher Tong), a childhood friend of Gang's. The trio have recorded 26 episodes of "Cool! Shanghai" since launching their project eight months ago. They say it has received more than 40,000 hits on the Internet during that time, as they discuss topics of interest using the Shanghai dialect.

This project is one of the more creative ones I've read about in the ongoing debate on how to preserve the Shanghai dialect, and whether the dialect is even worth saving in an age where many of Shanghai's residents come from faraway places with their own local languages.

The city is still home to at least one Shanghai-dialect TV channel, which is mostly viewed by older folks. Other preservation efforts include introducing the dialect onto some local buses when announcing stops, alongside the usual Mandarin announcements.

People have widely different opinions on whether the dialect is worth saving. A former colleague and 30-something Shanghainese once observed that he speaks dialect to his son, but that his son always replies in Mandarin. But his view seemed to be that this kind of changeover was inevitable.

Another of my older friends always quickly slips into Shanghainese when we dine with friends from his generation, leaving me to struggle to understand bits and pieces of conversation that resemble Mandarin. But he goes easily back into Mandarin whenever there are more than three or four non-native Shanghainese around.

I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I've made only a very little effort to learn the dialect during my more than three years in the city. I made similarly little effort to learn the local dialect while living in Taiwan for three years.

The only place where I made an active effort was in Hong Kong when I lived there in the late 1980s. At that time Hong Kong was still under British control and little or no Mandarin was spoken there. Foreigners could sometimes survive with English, but often even English wasn't sufficient when dining in local eateries or going to some more remote villages where only Cantonese was spoken.

All of that brings me back to my own central view, which is that language is first and foremost a tool for communicating. In modern Shanghai and Taiwan, I could communicate very well with nearly everyone using Mandarin, and therefore saw less urgency to learn the local dialect. In 1980s Hong Kong, by comparison, learning Cantonese was more a matter of survival.

So, where does that leave me in terms of my views on the worthiness of preserving Shanghai dialect, or local dialects in general? I think most people would agree that there's simply no way to preserve the big majority of Chinese dialects, since many are spoken only in small areas and lack any intellectual community to lobby for their survival. Such a process certainly wouldn't be unique to China, as most modern countries in Europe had many local dialects that died out as communications and mobility improved and standard versions of the language become the norm.

Still, many dialects do continue to exist in Europe and are relatively widely spoken in some places. That said, efforts like "Cool! Shanghai" seem not only admirable, but also critical for the survival of that or any other dialect in China's current landscape of growing wealth and mobility.

This kind of effort looks smart to me, because it seeks to add a "cool" and special element to speaking Shanghainese, which is clearly aimed at the younger generation whose interest is critical to the survival of any language.

In addition to appealing to locals, proponents of saving the dialect might even try to broaden their efforts by reaching out to include outsiders in the effort to popularize speaking and enjoying the language, rather than keeping it in the exclusive domain of city natives.

Who knows - maybe with that kind of more inclusive outreach, even a foreigner like myself might be convinced to put more effort into learning this colorful language and important part of Shanghai's history and culture.

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