China’s Disappearing Dialects

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The Chinese government probably had a good idea in mind when they decided to enforce the national standardization of Mandarin. After all, it was a way to break language barriers between the many linguistically and culturally isolated areas within China, and the use of Pǔtōnghuà as a lingua franca has helped China vastly in its economical and social development. There often comes a cost with change, however, and in this case, China’s many dialects are bearing the front of the effects of this so called “Mandarinization” – namely, dialects are disappearing left, right and center.

But why should we care? Well, for one, dialects are an integral part of each region’s habits, culture, and unique characteristics. With some 56 different ethnic groups, and an estimated 130 local languages (not to mention sub-dialects and accents), many of China’s non-standardized forms of communication are even older than Mandarin itself, and are therefore important in indicating key factors of Chinese history. If China were to lose these precious dialects, so too would it be losing an important part of its culturally rich past.

Thankfully, as people are starting to realize this widespread language vanishing act, efforts are being put forth to help protect endangered dialects. A project called Phonemica has recently started recording and archiving audio clips from a variety of areas in China in order to help preserve language for future generations. Their team is largely comprised of several volunteers working throughout China, interviewing, recording, and transcribing various dialects and accents. If you are interested in assisting their efforts, check out their website here.

ChinesePod too is contributing a small part towards this dialect preservation and awareness. We have published one dialect-based series on Shanghainese, which you can check out here. In addition, if you are keen to learn other dialects as well, feel free to post your interests and comments on our blog/comment boards.


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S Chen

About S Chen

Director of My Learning Club Pty Ltd. Owner of Learn Chinese Cairns
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