We often think of “linguistic diversity” referring to the existence of minority languages in an area. But it can also refer to the varying dialects of a region, which in China would include topolects, AKA 方言. When you throw various forms of language together in a single geographical area, they don’t stay distinct; they bleed into each other in interesting ways.
Here are a few anecdotes about that, and what we’re potentially losing when a large region’s language becomes one shade of plain vanilla.
Beijing to Hangzhou
I learned the basics of Mandarin in Hangzhou, where not so many people speak “standard Chinese.” I had to constantly check dictionaries to make sure I was learning the proper pronunciation of new words, because the pinyin sounds “ch/sh/zh” were always being pronounced as “c/s/z”, as southern Chinese tend to do. This was annoying it times, but it didn’t bother me too much, because it was simply the way things were.
Fast forward a few years. I witnessed students of Mandarin visiting Hangzhou from Beijing, absolutely livid because no one in Hangzhou spoke “proper Chinese,” and they couldn’t understand anything. They were used to extremely standard Mandarin, with a bit of Beijing dialect for flavor, but not this.
The whole thing was amusing to me, because not only could I easily understand what they could not, but when I visited Beijing, the locals were so easy to understand that it was surreal, as if every word that came out of every Beijinger’s mouth was a recording from a textbook dialog.
(Note: Americans, when visiting the UK for the first time, may have a similar experience to these students of Chinese in Beijing.)
Fading Tolerance for the Nonstandard
When we had our second baby, we hired a yuesao (post-natal caregiver, 月嫂). We call her Zhang Ayi. Zhang Ayi is great, but she’s from Jiangsu, and she has an accent that can be hard for me to understand.
At first I was thinking, “my Chinese must be worse than I thought,” because after all these years in China, a little accent shouldn’t throw me off too much. It made me feel better, then, to know that my wife (a Shanghai native) also has trouble understanding Zhang Ayi, and fairly often. Zhang Ayi manages to speak in a way that sounds standard, but you just can’t understand it. (As a non-native speaker, it really makes me doubt my listening comprehension!) It’s a different flavor of “nonstandard” than I’m used to, but it affects even a native speaker’s comprehension.
The interesting thing is that my wife’s parents (one from Shanghai, one from Hubei) have no trouble understanding anything Zhang Ayi says. Their generation grew up in a China with wildly heterogenous Mandarin spoken (remember Mao’s Mandarin?), and they just have a much, much higher tolerance for strong accents. This tolerance is fading fast in the younger generations.
It’s been widely reported that Shanghainese (上海话) is dying. A lot of Shanghainese parents are taking great pains to use Shanghainese with their children to make sure that this cultural heritage does not die out.
The problem is that a dialect/topolect is not merely a family issue; it’s a community issue. And what’s happening with these families is that their children do indeed comprehend Shanghainese, and can usually say a few words and phrases, but they essentially do not speak it. Only standard Chinese is allowed in schools, and that makes it “weird” for Shanghainese kids to talk to each other in anything other than standard Chinese. Shanghainese does not feel necessary or useful to the children.
What’s even worse, even if a Shanghainese parent goes the extra mile and insists that only Shanghainese is spoken in the home, raising her own child to be 100% fluent in Shanghainese, her child will likely be the member of a society where no one else of his generation actually speaks Shanghainese. And one fluent speaker can’t keep Shanghainese going.