Mother tongue gives taste of home

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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.

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