Dialect or Not, That is the Question.


Strictly speaking, my mother tongue – if the definition of mother tongue is the one that you hear/speak throughout childhood – is not Mandarin Chinese but Fenghua Hua, the dialect from my hometown where I grew up and lived till 17 years old before I left for university in Shangahi. Mandarin is a language that I learnt when I started school at the age of six. (by the way, isn’t it a proof that a new language can be learnt at a rather ‘late’ age of six?)

Yet, I am not teaching Nina Fenghua Hua, but Mandarin Chinese only. Even my mom said that she would make an effort to speak Mandarin with Nina. The reason? ‘Because Fenghua Hua has no real value’, quote from my mom.

Is it true that the dialect has no value?

I was chatting with L. who has a daughter about same age as Nina and an older son of 3 years old. L is origionally from North-East part of India while her husband is from South India. They each speak different regional languages (I didn’t manage to remember the names of languages, shame on me!) so English becomes the common language between them. Their older son speaks some words of L’s local language thanks to L’s mother’s effort, but their younger daughter will not, because they have decided not to teach her that language.

It also leads me to think of my 8-year-old niece (my sister’s daughter) who lives in a city not far from our hometown. She can understand Fenghua Hua because that’s pretty much the only language that her great-grandparents speak, however she would always reply back in Mandarin because that’s what she has been talked to by her parents and in school from birth. No one including her great-grandparents seems to be bothered.

On a different note, Shanghai Hua is getting a momentum from its locals – those whose parents are Shanghainese too, NOT those ‘new Shanghainese’ who are recent migrants to the city like myself – to be spoken more not only on the street but also in more public areas including bus & metro for the stop announcement for example. It is a movement that gets more and more supports in recent years. It’s not uncommon to see a passage on weibo (a Chinese version of facebook and twitter combined) in standard Chinese characters but would make sense only when pronounced in Shanghai Hua. I have many friends from Shanghai talking to their kids in Shanghai Hua only at home.

So why Fenghua Hua & L’s language and Shanghai Hua are getting so different treatment from its own people? Is it because people from Shanghai feel more strongly about their heritage? Or simply down to the fact that Shanghai has a large enough population to support the evolvement of its dialect? Or perhaps because Shanghai holds such an important place as a city and an economy in the whole country that its people feel their dialect deserves a special place to match?

I don’t have an answer. There perhaps isn’t a simple answer.

For now, I continue to speak Fenghua Hua with my mom and Mandarin with my daughter.

3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Dialect or Not, That is the Question. | on raising bilingual children

  2. This is a great post, which illustrates well the complexities of choosing dialect over language, and how power/economy impacts language as well. Thanks for directing me here! Can I reblog this on my site as a follow-on post to my previous post about dialect and language?


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