The Diminishing Chinese Dialects


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.

(Serena Seng)