ZHOU Xiaomo, who just turned four in Xinzhuang Town, speaks fluent Mandarin and can understand when his parents and grandparents speak in Shanghai dialect. But he can’t speak of a word of dialect himself.
“Teachers and children all speak Mandarin in his kindergarten,” said Zhang Qian, Zhou’s mother. “At home, my husband and I speak Mandarin to him and Shanghai dialect to one another. At times, I think it’s all very odd.”
Odd, perhaps, but not uncommon. With all students now required to speak Mandarin in schools, they naturally bring the habit home to households where older family members speak in dialect.
Linguists now fear that Shanghai’s distinctive dialect risks being lost in the next few generations.
“I find that children speak only a little Shanghai dialect, often awkwardly, or can’t speak it at all,” said Shi Honglian, a teaching music researcher with the Minhang District Education Institute. “When I talk with their parents, they feel the same sense of disconnect at home.”
Rescuing the dialect is viewed as rescuing local culture. To that end, language and music researchers have collected and edited a volume of children’s songs called “Fifty Shanghai Ballads” sung in dialect. The songbook will be used in Minhang primary schools after it is published in May. Shi is the chief editor of the book.
“The ballads we chose were the most popular ones,” she said. “But many of them didn’t have any recording files or musical scores, so we had to find folk artists to sing the songs to us.”
That was no easy task. Many older artists gave up Shanghai ballads years ago because they found little public interest in them.
“That put us under a lot of pressure,” Shi said. “We realized that if we didn’t grasp the nettle, many precious ballads might be lost forever.”
Fascinating local culture
Shi said she finds that local culture fascinates both old-time locals and incoming residents alike.
In her editing group, several younger people who are teachers in Shanghai schools originally came from outside the city. When work on the ballad book began, some of them didn’t even speak Shanghai dialect.
“Music and singing may be the best way to pass on the Shanghai dialect,” Shi said. “They show people the beauty of language.”
“Fifty Shanghai Ballads” will be the first book utilizing Shanghai dialect to be used in Minhang schools.
In 2011, 31 high schools and primary schools in the district started to use the book “Shanghai Native Musical Culture.” The book, also edited by Shi and her team, introduced cultural icons such as the lion dance of Maqiao Town and the Minhang gongs.
In the past two years, the book’s usage has expanded to 60 schools all over Shanghai. An English version was published and is now used in 12 international schools in the city.
Shi said she wants to develop a website and an app after “Fifty Shanghai Ballads” is published to enable people to not only listen to the ballads but also upload their singing to share with others.
Ballads in Shanghai dialect
“In my opinion, music needs to be shared if it is to be passed on,” said Shi. “Speaking Mandarin is certainly important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of losing our local cultural heritage.”
The Minhang District Library offers classes in Shanghai dialect, and teachers in that program also serve as deejays for Shanghai dialect programs aired on Minhang Radio.
Chen Quandi was a volunteer teacher in Shanghai dialect for seven years, until she fell. Her classes in dialect attracted large numbers of out-of-towners who moved to Minhang from other parts of the country.
“It’s a misconception that people from out-of-town don’t like the Shanghai dialect,” said Chen. “Many people want to learn it because it’s an avenue to blend into the local environment.”
Minhang is a district of immigrants, attracting people from across China. Library staff said they long ago detected the need to hold classes in the local dialect, especially among young people who came to regard Shanghai as their second home.
The free “Learn to Speak Shanghai Dialect” course at the library offers four eight-hour sessions for up to 50 pupils every year. Demand for slots always exceeds space available.
Zhang Naiqing, former director of the library, said the best way to learn Shanghai dialect is to be brave and jump in.
Speak whenever possible
“Just speak it whenever you have the chance,” he said. “Don’t be afraid that you’re speaking it weirdly. It’s the same as learning any other language.”
He said the Shanghai dialect course has a “free-to-speak” time after the class, which was popular with participants.
David Yang works for a multinational company and has been living in Shanghai since graduation from college. He hails from Liyang in east China’s Jiangsu Province.
“I always wanted to attend a Shanghai dialect course, but unfortunately I didn’t have much time,” he said. “I once tried to register for a session, but the class was already full.”
So Yang decided he would make a personal effort. He studied the phonology of Shanghai dialect and listened to those speaking dialect around him.
“Some of the rules are a bit close to the Liyang dialect,” he said. “Once I grasped the basic rules, it became easier. Now I can understand most Shanghai dialect as long as people don’t speak too fast. It does feel good to be able to understand what local people are talking about. It gives me a better understanding of them.”
Zhang Qian, mother of 4-year-old Zhou Xiaomo, is also making more of an effort to familiarize her son with Shanghai dialect. She tries to talk to him in dialect at times and is teaching him songs that she learned as a child.
“It’s awkward when a Shanghai-born child can’t speak the dialect of his forebears,” she said. “I believe it’s not too late to change that.”