On Saving China's Dying Languages

Kellen Parker, co-founder of the Phonemica project, believes preserving a language means preserving history.


A map from Phonemica showing some of China's many language groups. (phonemica.net)

For a country so thoroughly associated with its national language, referred to in the West as Mandarin, China is remarkably rich in linguistic diversity. Unfortunately, the country's rapid development -- and government mandates to use Mandarin in schools and official settings -- has threatened the existence of many languages.

Earlier this month, Tea Leaf Nation profiled the Phonemica project, an effort led by two foreign-born linguists to record native speakers in each of China's surviving languages,  ensuring that their words will be understood after their passing. In this follow-up, I spoke to Kellen Parker, one of Phonemica's founders, about China's linguistic map -- and why preserving a language means preserving a history that may otherwise be forgotten.

What would you describe as the objectives of Phonemica?

Basically, we're trying to document the way Chinese people actually speak at home. We're then going in and analyzing the recordings of them speaking, eventually building up a database of linguistic features that will be able to be displayed dynamically. So, for example, you could go in and see all the different words used for "wok" in different dialects, or see variations in how Mandarin dialects pronounce ránhòu (nahou in Taiwan, zãho in Shanghai). Then all of this will be shown on dynamic maps. We're probably a year away from having this fully set up and usable. The core of the system is in place, but we only have one developer working on the whole system.

At the same that we're looking at documenting dialects, we're also attempting to do something to record oral histories of a time in Asia where there was a lot going on that people outside of the area might not be aware of. A lot of these stories are important to people in China. We want to be providing something for the general public in China, and so we're working with folklorists and oral historians at Chinese universities to this end.

We don't often think of China as a country rich in linguistic diversity, but there is a huge number of languages spoken in the country, as well as dialects. How many are there?

This is a very difficult question to answer. China has 56 official ethnic groups. Many of these individual groups self-identify as actually being multiple distinct groups with distinct languages, and other individual groups may actually have multiple languages. What many consider a single language may actually be three, which is the case for what we think of as Tibetan. Ethnologue, which is usually considered a pretty reliable source, lists 298 living languages in China's borders today.

So then there's the question of "what's a language and what's a dialect?" for which there is no real answer. The Mandarin a person from Xuzhou in Jiangsu would speak at home is pretty much unintelligible to a Beijinger. They form a continuum where people at the ends can't understand each other, but from one town to the next the degree of mutual intelligibility is pretty high, from town to town, all the way to Beijing. For Phonemica, we say that Wu and Mandarin and Cantonese are all different languages of the same language family, much like Italian and Spanish and French are grouped as Romance languages in Europe. Others might say that Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of Chinese. Neither opinion is really wrong, because the language/dialect distinction is entirely arbitrary, and some scholars may have a broader or narrower focus in making such distinctions.

As to how prevalent the dialects are, they're ubiquitous. Every town in China has its own form of speech, and to a trained ear, the differences are pretty clear. However, since most people use Mandarin to speak to anyone not from their hometown, a person in Beijing could probably go a long time without hearing any dialects from other parts of China. The speakers are there, but they're probably not using the dialect of their hometown.

How did Mandarin emerge as the national language in the country?

Ultimately, Mandarin was the only choice that made sense. Even at the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, the Mandarin dialects were more widely spoken than those of other languages. The dialects of places like Manchuria, Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province, and Gansu Province are ultimately Mandarin dialects, thanks to different military campaigns into those regions over the past few centuries. Additionally,Mandarin was the language spoken in what was the long-standing capital of China. It just wouldn't have been reasonable to make something like Wu or Cantonese the national language, since both are limited to fairly small geographic areas.

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.