Rapid urbanization and higher education are eradicating
the Chinese dialects in China. With a dwindling population of elderly
speakers, Chinese dialects stand no chance of survival in the world today.
Out of 206 dialects recorded in China, only 205 remain. Many are facing
the possibility of becoming extinct. If nothing is done to preserve these
links to our culture, they may be lost forever.
In China, dialects like those spoken by the minority groups, Ai-Cham, Bela,
Daur and Nusu have diminishing number of speakers. Ai-Cham is found in the
Libo County of the Qiannan Buyi-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Southern
Guizhou Province, Bela is found in the Yunnan Province, Daur is found
along the border of Heilongjiang Province and Inner Mongolia, and Nusu is
found in the Bijiang County in Nujiang Prefecture of northwestern Nusu. At
last count (1986), there are only 2,300 speakers of the Ai-Cham dialect of
Di'e and Boyao. The Bela dialect has only 2000 odd speakers (1992) while
the Daur dialect has 84,950 speakers or 70% of the ethnic group of 121,357
(1990). The Nusu dialect has 9000 speakers in total (1994). Today, these
figures are definitely much lower.
Linguists cite several reasons for the decreasing number of speakers. One
could be that the younger generation have left their hometowns in search
of employment in the bigger cities and have settled there; or they could
have been better educated and prefer to speak Mandarin, which is the
official communication medium in China. Another reason could be the
increasing aged population. Experts also believe that migration patterns,
disease and fertility rates also contributed to the decreasing numbers.
In Singapore, many Chinese dialects are also facing the same problems.
Singaporeans today are much more educated than a decade ago. Many of the
younger generation do not know how to speak dialect and many of their
grandparents are forced to pick up Mandarin or English to communicate with
them. Some parents deliberately instruct their parents not to speak
dialect in front of their grandchildren because they do not want their
children to pick up any word of the language.
Most Singaporeans also have the misconception that speaking dialect is
unglamorous while speaking English adds "class" and alleviates a
person's social status. One factor could be the media's exaggerated
portrayal of the crudeness of the dialects, resulting in many
"decent" people refusing to speak dialect for fear of being
deemed as profane. The government also encourages the speaking of Mandarin
instead of dialects. All these factors aggravate the decreasing number of
dialect speakers in Singapore.
Whatever the dialect, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, etc,
they are all very important aspects of our heritage. They are the language
spoken by our ancestors and they bridge the gap between two different
generations. If we are to look back at our ancestral culture, we need to
understand the dialect first.