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    Talk of the Towns: China’s Local Governments Step Up to Save Dialects

    With young Chinese fueling a revival of regional dialects, local governments across the country are now launching educational programs and media initiatives to preserve cultural identity.
    Jun 28, 2024#language#policy

    From after-school programs in Jiangxi to dialect-focused cartoons in Xiamen, local governments across China are mobilizing efforts to preserve local dialects that are increasingly at risk of fading into obscurity.

    Aimed at unifying the country under a single linguistic standard, Mandarin has been promoted as the official language of China since 1956. This policy, while successful in facilitating nationwide communication, has inadvertently placed many local dialects at risk as younger generations increasingly favor Mandarin for its broader utility in a globalized world.

    But in recent years, a renewed interest among young Chinese in their cultural and linguistic roots has sparked a revival of local dialects, partly fueled by mainstream media, including films like “B for Busy” and Wong Kar-wai’s TV series “Blossoms Shanghai.”

    Now, regional governments are stepping up too. According to a report in the Shanghai-based media outlet The Paper, Nancheng County in the eastern Jiangxi province has launched language-focused after-school programs, formed dialect interest groups, and integrated dialect-based activities into the educational curriculum. The county is also encouraging families to regularly use the Nancheng dialect in their daily interactions.

    In Xiamen in the eastern Fujian province, known for its complex local dialect, preservation efforts are facing significant challenges, with rapid urbanization and industrialization leading to a decline in the dialect being passed down, making its use increasingly rare.

    In response, the Xiamen education bureau announced initiatives in May to bolster the learning and use of the local dialect from early childhood through adolescence. They include broadcasting dialect-specific radio programs, nursery rhymes, and cartoons in kindergartens, and encouraging parents and grandparents to speak the dialect more frequently with children.

    In primary schools, dialect education has been woven into various cultural activities, while secondary schools are scheduling regular dialect promotion activities each week.

    Similarly, Fujian’s Putian City announced that dialect experts are now visiting schools to lead dialect heritage activities and guide students, while parents are being urged to use dialects more frequently in everyday conversations with their children, aiming to teach them one dialect phrase each day.

    And on June 6, Jinhua in the eastern Zhejiang province announced that it would incorporate dialect learning into school activities such as book and art festivals and would encourage parents to emphasize the importance of dialects at home.

    Xu Ling, 40, is committed to improving her 8-year-old son’s proficiency in the Shanghai dialect. She consistently speaks the dialect at home, which has significantly improved his fluency compared to his peers. “His willingness to engage with the dialect as a part of our cultural heritage is invaluable,” says Xu.

    She also encourages her parents to converse with him in Shanghai dialect, maintaining its use even as he switches to Mandarin. Despite a Mandarin-dominated school environment, Xu ensures her son remains connected to their dialect through media like cartoons and TV shows. “The dialect is a crucial part of our city’s identity,” says Xu. “Losing it would be a great loss for our generation.”

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Students and parents visit the Wang Li Museum in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on Aug. 20, 2022. Wang was one of the founders of modern linguistics in China. Chen Guanyan/CNS/VCG)