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May 13, 2011

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Shanghai dialect a true tongue twister

THE city's efforts to preserve Shanghai dialect have stumbled as experts are having trouble locating people in the suburbs who qualify as pure speakers. Hu Min reports.

Chu Bannong was bombarded with a bunch of questions when he visited the Minhang recruitment station in April to contribute his voice to the Shanghai dialect preservation project.

"Were you born in Xinzhuang (an area in Minhang)? Do you still live in Xinzhuang? Were your parents and wife born in Xinzhuang? Have you ever lived outside of Xinzhuang for four years?" they asked.

Chu failed to qualify because he served in the military for five years in Fujian Province and his wife was born in Songjiang District, another suburban district in Shanghai.

Suitable candidates for the city's dialect preservation project should have been born and raised in the area where the dialect originates.

Their spouses and parents should also meet the same requirement.

Senior candidates should have been born between 1941 and 1950 with the next generation of speakers born between 1971 and 1980. They should never have lived outside the area for more than four years as project organizers fear the experience might affect their pronunciation of Shanghai dialect.

The program, launched by the city's language work committee on March 24, aims to record various pronunciations, the history of changes to the dialect and produce a map of the locations of the branches of Shanghai dialect in 11 areas for archival purpose. They are seeking 84 native speakers of different variations of Shanghainese.

The solicitation process in Puxi has attracted more than 400 applications to date, with more than half meeting the criteria. But only a few ideal candidates have been found in the Pudong New Area, the suburban districts and Chongming County. It has forced the city's language work committee to prolong the recruitment schedule until May 31 from the original April 30 and loosen the requirements.

The requirements no longer state that a spouse has to be from the same area. Candidates are now allowed to have resided in places outside the area for up to six years, rather than the previous four years.

Zhang Ripei, an official with the city's language work committee, says many young people go to university in other areas for four years, thus this requirement has been loosened.

Chu, an expert with the Minhang District Intangible Cultural Heritage Preservation Center, now meets the requirements. Nonetheless, they are still finding it difficult to find enough candidates.

Since recruiting started, only seven people have submitted applications at the Qingpu District station. Only one person met the criteria, according to an official surnamed Han.

She says they are seeking help from local culture authorities to find more candidates.

Other suburban recruitment spots are also struggling.

So far, the Fengxian recruitment site hasn't found anyone suitable although dozens of applications were received, says an official surnamed Ji.

The area of old Nanqiao Town in Fengxian, where one version of Shanghai dialect originated, is small and the general mobility of the population has made it more difficult to find suitable candidates who were born and raised in the area, she says.

Sun Wei, an official working at the Chongming recruitment station, says some applicants failed due to their age while others were disqualified because they had moved to Chengqiao Town from the island's countryside. After reviewing 29 applications, Sun found only two ideal candidates.

Tang Quanli, a staff member at the Minhang recruitment site, says urbanization brings an influx of new residents to Xinzhuang, and many residents who were born in the area have moved to other districts due to the improvement of living standards.

Many district or county branches of the city's language work committee have asked local intangible culture heritage protection offices and neighborhood committees to promote the campaign so that they can find people who pronounce Shanghai dialect purely.

More and more young people - especially those born after the 1990s - no longer speak Shanghai dialect because teachers require them to speak Mandarin in primary and secondary schools. Shanghai's strong economy has also attracted millions of people from around the country to move here, further diluting the dialect.

The situation is even worse in suburbs.

Variations of Shanghainese spoken in the outskirts have been overwhelmed by how it is spoken in downtown areas. The downtown version is now deemed the standard local language, says Qian Nairong, a Shanghai University linguist who studies Shanghai dialect.

Also, the Shanghainese spoken by young people is different, sometimes significantly, from that spoken by the older population, triggering worries that the local dialect will be wiped out.

Huang Guoqi, a delegate to the Minhang Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, proposed that schools in Minhang District encourage students to speak in Shanghainese during class intervals.

"Shanghai dialect is the epitome of different regions and it represents the city's culture, therefore, kids and students should speak fluent Shanghainese," he said.

Chu agrees.

"Promoting Mandarin is good as we obviously need to communicate with people around the country, but Shanghainese and Mandarin can be developed and popularized together," he says.

Cai Gendi, a retired middle school teacher, applied to contribute her voice because she said she was worried that the local dialect will be lost.

"My son can't speak authentic Shanghainese, neither can my granddaughter," Cao says. "I can teach students to speak Mandarin, but even if I try my best to teach my granddaughter to speak Shanghainese, she is still unfamiliar with the language."

Recruitment criteria:

? Senior candidates should have been born between 1941 and 1950, and youngsters between 1971 and 1980.

? Candidates in Puxi should have been born and raised in any of the nine districts of Puxi. Candidates in Pudong and suburban districts and county should have been born and raised in the area where different Shanghainese varieties originate. The same requirement applies to the parents of the candidates.

? Candidates should never have lived in places outside the area for more than six years.

? Candidates should have good pronunciation of Shanghai dialect or different Shanghainese varieties.

? Candidates should have at least a primary school education.


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