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How to make dialect hip for younger folks

(Shanghai Daily)

08:40, April 01, 2013

AS an American living in China, one of the things I find completely different here is the vast number of local dialects throughout the country. In America everyone speaks English, even if it sometimes comes with regional accents and expressions that make understanding slightly challenging.

In China, by comparison, many dialects are often unintelligible to anyone besides people from the small areas where they are spoken. Many local languages are likely to become extinct in the next few decades as their speakers migrate to bigger cities and Mandarin becomes the language of choice.

International cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai have an advantage over smaller rivals in preserving this element of local culture, as many bigger places have big academic communities actively working to protect the dialect. Most of those academics are older folks who have admirable goals but don't know how to speak to a younger generation that's more interested in speaking more cosmopolitan Mandarin.

Against that backdrop, I was intrigued to read about a trio of 20- and 30-somethings who are trying to make the local Shanghai dialect appeal to younger people with their recently developed web series, "Cool! Shanghai." I had to ask quite a few people before deciding on how to even translate the word "Cool" in the program's title, since the actual word, pronounced like dia, is a very local one with no Mandarin equivalent.

The trio behind the program consists of Panda, a 32-year-old interior designer; Gang Laoshi (Teacher Gang), a 25-year-old elementary school teacher; and 32-year-old Tong Laoshi (Teacher Tong), a childhood friend of Gang's. The trio have recorded 26 episodes of "Cool! Shanghai" since launching their project eight months ago. They say it has received more than 40,000 hits on the Internet during that time, as they discuss topics of interest using the Shanghai dialect.

This project is one of the more creative ones I've read about in the ongoing debate on how to preserve the Shanghai dialect, and whether the dialect is even worth saving in an age where many of Shanghai's residents come from faraway places with their own local languages.

The city is still home to at least one Shanghai-dialect TV channel, which is mostly viewed by older folks. Other preservation efforts include introducing the dialect onto some local buses when announcing stops, alongside the usual Mandarin announcements.

People have widely different opinions on whether the dialect is worth saving. A former colleague and 30-something Shanghainese once observed that he speaks dialect to his son, but that his son always replies in Mandarin. But his view seemed to be that this kind of changeover was inevitable.

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