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Technology used to help save Shanghai dialects dialect


09:00, June 17, 2013

Shanghai, where locals once felt superior to outsiders by virtue of their port city's peculiar dialect, is now trying to prevent its own voice from extinction using new technology.

A video series created to introduce and promote the Shanghai dialect has attracted 400,000 clicks online, as it tries to help prevent the local language from becoming extinct.

Producer Gu Yibo was inspired to make the six-part series after an embarrassing four-generation family gathering during Spring Festival last year.

The 39-year-old Gu became aware that his son could only speak Mandarin and could not communicate with his 94-year-old great-grandmother. Gu had to translate.

"When my grandma praised my son with a local expression, he did not get it at all," Gu said, adding he then realized the danger of losing their own dialect because few Shanghai people had taught it to their children.

He does not want his son to forget the Shanghai dialect.

"According to our family tree records, we were an educated family in the past," said Gu, indicating he feels a responsibility to pass on traditional culture.

Thinking of how he could get his son interested in the Shanghai dialect, Gu dubbed over the voice of the "Talking Tom" cat, a popular character on a smartphone game app.

The six-part series was born, attracting online followers.

According to Qian Nairong, a linguist with Shanghai University, the Shanghai dialect belongs to the branch of Wu dialects in China. Other branches include Hakka, The North, Hunan, Fujian, Canton, and Jiangxi.

With rapid social development over recent years, an increasing number of migrants with different dialects can be found all over China. However, people are encouraged to speak Mandarin to clearly communicate with each other, threatening the existence of local dialects.

"Middle-aged people have become unfamiliar with some old expressions," Qian said.

As an important part of national cultural heritage, languages and words should be preserved, but a language could eventually disappear, he feared.

Qian and his team developed character input software using the Shanghai dialect in 2008, in an attempt to save the regional language using high-tech means.

Some language experts worry that dialects will become extinct in the era of the Internet, as most people type characters with unified Pinyin, a version of Chinese which is based on Mandarin using the Latin alphabet.

Chen Shengxiang, 73, is one of the worriers.

He spent a year compiling a 100,000-character Shanghai dialect dictionary, which includes more than 2,000 entries and their corresponding Mandarin expressions.

For words rarely used, which usually relate to weather, farming and family, Chen had to seek the advice from old farmers for accurate pronunciation.

Gu Yibo said Chen's dictionary was a vital tool for his video series, adding that experts like Chen are becoming rare.

"We should not only keep their words, but also record their voices," Gu said.

To better preserve China's dialects, the State Language Commission is building an audio database for the country's languages.

The Shanghai government has been promoting the teaching of dialects in kindergartens.

The Pudong New Area government also opened a Q&A section for learning on its microblog on Weibo.

Gu is confident the Shanghai dialect will not become extinct.

"High-tech will not be a dialect's killer but an important tool for us to better pass down the dialect," he said.

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