Mother tongue gives taste of home
local tongue once outside. So people learned to toggle between the two. One would inadvertently show one’s level of education by how much the dialect was detectable in theMandarin spoken. Being able to speak only dialect usually meant you were not properly educated.
Of course, in an age of little mobility, that did not pose any problem as everyone else spoke the same dialect. In fact it would be strange if you blurted out inMandarin to your family members or neighbors, or even your teachers once out of school.
As I travel the country and read up more on literature from a wide reach of locations, I have learned to appreciate the beauty of dialects. While a hindrance in peripatetic communication, dialects can add a touch of local color to arts and literature if used appropriately. Each dialect has many expressions that have no equivalents inMandarin. They are all part of our linguistic assets. But we tend to take them for granted because we either use them in our daily lives or are unaware of those we are unfamiliar with.
Eileen Chang’s stories are suffused with sayings typical of the Shanghai area. She once talked about an interjection nao that Shanghainese use in situations similar to “well” as an alert to something. And like “well” in English, it does not have an exact equivalent inMandarin. Small details like that help create a literary world full of nuances and color. And can you change Lao She’s play Teahouse from Beijing dialect to standard Mandarin? I’msure you can preserve the meaning of every sentence, but it would be devoid of the verbal sizzle that makes it great.
In recent decades, comedian Zhao Benshan stands out for popularizing the northeastern dialect. Words like huyou, which means hoodwink, were hardly heard of in southern China before he pushed it into the national vocabulary via his widely watched television skits.
I don’t know where the tipping point was when dialects turned from a communication obstacle to a cherished heritage for Chinese culture. But when I stumbled upon children inmy hometown talking to each other inMandarin while playing on the street, it dawned on me that the days for most dialects are doomed. They would disappear within one generation or two. Possibly withinmy lifetime, most dialects would go down the road of calligraphy, or worse the abacus, where they would be under academic scrutiny and government protection, but out of the daily use of the common folk.
Efforts to suppress dialects at the current stage of economic development seem well-intentioned but illadvised. In an era of ubiquitous mass communication and high mobility, sheer necessity determines the importance ofMandarin. Even ethnic minorities who were drilled home bilingual proficiency have to rely onMandarin to seek work outside their hometowns.
The ability to speakMandarin should be taught to every child in China. But it does not have to come at the expense of dialects. Children can perfectly handle bothMandarin and a dialect. They are losing interest in the dialect because it is perceived as uncool, partly because it is not the patois of their favorite entertainment. Not everyone has the talent or the platform to create dialect-based shows that click with a nationwide audience as Zhao Benshan has been doing so effectively. But it is time people started to see dialects as an asset, rather than a liability, that can enrich their verbal expressiveness.
With or without government intervention, most dialects will vanish. But there is no sense in hastening their demise. There is a need for dialect programming on local radio and television stations. It is the proportion that should be calibrated. Too much of it may turn off new arrivals who try to fit in. I have noticed a newtrend of mixing dialects withMandarin for some forms of entertainment, which, if you think of it, is an accurate reflection of the current state of linguistic convergence.
Dialects should never be used to discriminate against outsiders who do not know them. All dialects in China, and ethnic languages, are an integral part of our civilization. They may give us local identities and make us proud of the places where we grow up. As long as interdialect communication is kept smooth, meaning nobody outside a dialect group is made to feel alienated, there is nothing wrong with sprinkling one’s conversation with a sampling of dialect. Sometimes it can be the little act of nonconformity that distinguishes one from the pack. And who knows, some of those dialectal idioms may find their way into the repository of Mandarin and be shared by all in the nation.