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Shanghai dialect needs to shun ‘grandma’ image
By Doug Young

Shanghai’s local dialect has been back in the news these past few weeks, rekindling the debate about whether the city should make special efforts to save a colorful language that is quickly being overtaken by Mandarin.

I’ve previously said that the disappearance of local dialects is inevitable throughout China as the nation modernizes, even though there’s nothing wrong with local governments and individuals trying to preserve such languages. But I’ll also add my view that those same preservationists should change their approach to target a younger, more modern audience if they really want to succeed.

I first wrote about the effort to resuscitate Shanghainese last year, when I looked at an innovative Internet-based drama program created by some young speakers hoping to revive interest in the dialect. Since then, city officials have joined the campaign by reintroducing announcements in Shanghai dialect onto several bus routes.

In the latest move of the growing campaign, the city has launched a pilot program at 20 elementary schools where kindergartners will be encouraged to speak and learn in Shanghainese. The move came as city officials declared that protecting the local dialect will be one of their big tasks for the future, as they seek to reverse a rapid decline in use of the language.

A separate new survey detailed just how much the dialect has declined over the last decade. It revealed that more Shanghai residents can now speak Mandarin than the local dialect, with 97 percent able to speak the former and only 81 percent proficient in the latter. The survey also found that younger people were less proficient in the dialect than older ones, not a good sign for its long-term survival.

Those results shouldn’t surprise anyone, since Shanghai has welcomed millions of immigrants from other parts of China over the last decade, most of whom don’t speak the dialect. But in my view, the deeper issue fueling the rapid decline is an image problem.

Put simply, many increasingly see Shanghai dialect as a language that is spoken mostly by a group of older residents who come from an earlier era in the city’s history. I certainly don’t want to disrespect that group, but I think most people would agree that their collective image is the exact opposite of the “cool” and trendy style that most attracts the kinds of young people needed to sustain any language.

As a detached observer, I can say that the first image that comes to my mind when I think of Shanghainese is a middle-aged, unfashionably dressed man or woman chattering loudly or simply yelling at someone over his or her cellphone on a bus or the subway. That image is hardly one that most young people would want to imitate. To the contrary, most of the city’s younger residents would probably rather put as much distance as possible between themselves and that image.

The issue certainly isn’t unique to Shanghai. The local language in Taiwan, called Taiwanese or Minnan dialect, is often shunned by young people in Taipei, who often prefer to speak Mandarin. Many of them can speak Taiwanese, and often use it to communicate with their parents and others from the older generation.

But the language has a definite connotation of life in small towns and villages where it’s widely spoken, compared with a more cosmopolitan and modern image for Mandarin.

If Shanghai officials really want to improve local dialect’s chances of survival, I would suggest they hire some image consultants to find ways to make the language more trendy and attractive to the younger speakers who will be key to its survival.

For example, they could pay some young and trendy local celebrities to become Shanghainese ambassadors, similar to those who endorse consumer products. It could also launch campaigns to introduce colorful Shanghainese words into spoken Mandarin, much the way that many people think it’s cool to drop English and other foreign words into their Mandarin today.

When all is said and done, efforts like the ones in elementary schools and on public buses could help to revive Shanghainese to some extent by making it more publicly accessible. But such efforts are all coercive, using old-style tactics that could ultimately backfire if people associate the campaign with forceful government tactics from a previous era.

Instead, city authorities should try a new, more persuasive approach aimed at convincing people at how fun and inclusive it can be to speak Shanghainese, and how the language helps to define the city’s unique character as a meeting place between East and West.

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