On Saving China's Dying Languages

How quickly are these minor languages dying?

The answer is different in different places. If we're just looking at a language like Wu, which is spoken in and around Shanghai, we can see clear changes from one generation to the next. In many of these places, the generation after today's children won't be able to speak the local language. Every day we talk to people who lament that they can only understand but not speak the language of their parents, or if they speak it, it's only at the most basic level. These aren't small languages either; we're looking at languages that have tens of millions of speakers. There are languages that are dying out because there are only 100 speakers, all of whom in their 70's or 80's, and there are languages that are dying out with millions of speakers. The reason is fundamentally the same, though: More and more people are consciously using Mandarin at home.

In more remote regions such as the mountains of Yunnan, a lot of the non-Sinitic languages are actually a bit more protected and have a legal status that other languages do not. Unfortunately, the geography that helps preserve these languages comes with the cost of slower economic development for the people in those areas.

I'd say in two generations, the linguistic map of Greater China is going to look shockingly different than what it is today.

China's government has invested a lot of money and time into spreading the use of Mandarin at the exclusion of local languages. Have they made any effort to preserve some of these old tongues?

In China, local governments have taken some steps. Most cities in Jiangsu have at least one state-run television channel ​​with programming in the local dialect.

Should they do more?

I'm obviously not arguing that Mandarin shouldn't be learned. It has great value to people in their real-world, day-to-day lives. If you're trying to get a good job in a big city, the person who can walk into the interview with clear, standard Mandarin pronunciation has a huge social advantage, and you can't blame parents for wanting to give their children this advantage in the future. I'm not blaming the government for promoting Mandarin in favor of the various local varieties. China's a huge place with a lot of people. Without Mandarin, it would be much more difficult to have a functioning society at such a scale.

It's interesting that Phonemica is the brain-child of two foreigners -- are there any Chinese groups undertaking a similar project?

​There have been a number of state-funded language surveys in the past few decades, but they're not quite like what we're trying to do. The Language Atlas of China​ and the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects reflect such efforts. The former does a good job of showing boundaries of the languages and their dialect groups, but doesn't go into any detail about features of the dialects. The latter goes into features of dialects in over 900 locations in China, and is much more detailed in terms of what they've recorded. There have also been also a number of projects to record audio, though these are typically not made public.

​We've gotten some criticism for being foreigners, which isn't unexpected. Our motivations have been questioned by some people. ​We're doing this because we love these dialects. We legitimately enjoy hearing how different one town can sound from the next. We're absolutely not political, and we're losing money every month to do this. Phonemica is a labor of love.

For which other countries would a project like Phonemica be most useful?

I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and worked with Arabic in the past, and so I'd love to see something like this eventually be set up for Semitic languages. I've been doing some work with Formosan languages recently, outside of Phonemica, so I'm also looking at trying to branch in that direction.

And of course India would be great as well. Really, this is something that could be done for any country or any dialect group.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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