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Vanishing languages saved for posterity

(China Daily)

09:35, September 28, 2012

Government seeks to preserve dialects before they disappear

Education authorities are compiling a database on the dialects of different regions and ethnic groups across the country to preserve those languages before they disappear, a senior government official said.

Given China's rapid economic and social development, standard Mandarin, or Putonghua, has become increasingly popular across the country. It is even replacing some local dialects, particularly in urban and developed areas, said Zhang Haoming, director of the language information management department under the Ministry of Education.

By 2011, 70 percent of people in China could speak and read standard Mandarin, compared with 51 percent in 2000, according to the government.

Zhang said the popularity of Putonghua is inevitable because it has become an important tool for daily communication and economic exchanges between people of different regions. "For individuals, they may feel their self-development restricted if they don't speak Putonghua," he said.

Zhang said that at the same time, some dialects that had existed in certain regions for a long time and carry historic and cultural significance are disappearing.

"That's why we launched the national project to record the dialects and, ultimately, to complete a database on China's dialects," Zhang said in an interview with China Daily.

Important parts of the database are language resources and a comprehensive vocal collection, which was initiated in 2008. So far, pilot projects have been carried out in Jiangsu and Liaoning provinces, Shanghai and Beijing municipalities, and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, according to the ministry.

A recent example of the project that has attracted a lot of media attention was in Dalian, in Liaoning province, where the government this month chose nine residents as representatives of the Dalian dialect. After training, they will record the pronunciation of 1,000 commonly used characters, 1,200 words and some sentences in the Dalian dialect.

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