Fluent foreigners spread the word on dialects

By Wang Xin (China Daily) 14:17, March 25, 2024


Tobias Le Compte, a 35-year-old Belgian musician widely known as Tobias or Gao Yue, has become a sensation on social media for his excellent grasp of the main Shanghai dialect.

A multi-instrumentalist and the chief operating officer of Montreux Jazz Festival China, Le Compte has been sharing his everyday experiences, which he delivers in Shanghai dialect, on video-sharing and lifestyle platforms Douyin and Xiaohongshu, garnering thousands of followers and millions of likes.

In the videos, he speaks fluent Shanghai dialect, which many non-locals believe is as difficult to learn and understand as a foreign language. He talks about walking on the city's streets, enjoying the food and music, and recording his daily life in the city.

"I started shooting and posting these short videos for my own practice purposes. I didn't expect so many people would be watching them, following me and sending me comments and encouragement," said Le Compte.

"For me, the tone of the Shanghai dialect sounds like music with fascinating waves," said the musician who enjoys learning languages and dialects. "I believe a dialect is the heart of a local culture."

In 2008, Le Compte, who is a percussionist, guitarist, bassist and piano player, visited Shanghai for the first time as a member of a music and dance group that participated in an arts festival in Baoshan district. He was enchanted by the city right away, and returned the next year and enrolled as an undergraduate student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Like most expats in China, Le Compte first studied Mandarin and spent about half a year teaching himself the language.

"At first, I had little contact with the Shanghai dialect. People around me in the city could all speak Mandarin and it was enough for daily life and communication, so I didn't feel it was necessary to learn the dialect," said Le Compte.

It was not until 2021, when Le Compte was back in Belgium and confined to his home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that he started learning Shanghainese.

"When I was back in Belgium, I realized that many of my Chinese friends were from Shanghai and they had been talking in the Shanghai dialect. I have always loved studying languages and dialects, so I chose to learn some Shanghai dialect to fill the boring days at home during the pandemic," Le Compte said.

He was also motivated by the 2021 hit movie B for Busy, a tale set in Shanghai starring local stars who speak their lines in the city's dialect.

"I was not thinking too much when I started learning the Shanghai dialect — it was just for fun. I turned to my friends to speak and learn the dialect. I also watched TV series and movies in the Shanghai dialect, as well as Shanghai farces," he said.

Listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2011, Shanghai farce, or huajixi, is a traditional opera and type of comedic performance that originated in the city in the early 20th century.

Le Compte said when he uploaded the short Shanghainese videos it was simply to practice the dialect and he didn't think much about it. "Gradually, and unexpectedly, many people saw my posts and sent me positive and encouraging comments, which made me dive deeper into the dialect and local culture," Le Compte said.

He settled back in Shanghai in January. Much to his surprise, when he arrived at the airport he was recognized by many people as "the foreigner who can speak fluent Shanghai dialect".

"Since then, I have been frequently recognized on the city's streets. People keep telling me 'thank you for promoting our Shanghai dialect' and 'we support you', which makes me feel that I am doing something very meaningful. I feel a greater sense of responsibility," he added.


Musician Tobias Le Compte is fluent in the local dialect. [CHINA DAILY]

'Brave' mistakes

Le Compte did not bury his nose in textbooks or undertake intensive study to learn Shanghainese. He said his learning methods involved getting immersed in a language environment, having a positive attitude, and speaking bravely "without being afraid to make mistakes".

"Some people may worry too much about being looked down upon for their accent or using the wrong words, which I think is not the right approach. Although non-native speakers can't grasp a language 100 percent, the more words you say, the more accurately you will end up saying them," Le Compte said.

However, he is worried that the dialect seems to be disappearing from common use.

"It's such a pity to know that many residents in Shanghai can't speak the dialect. There are many traditional customs and local cultures that are hard to describe precisely in Mandarin. Some of them can only be expressed and understood in the dialect, such as nursery rhymes and slang," said Le Compte.

Shanghai residents tend to be more welcoming to those who speak the dialect, he added. "I used to live in a shikumen (lane house) in Shanghai, where I got quite immersed in the city's authentic local life," he said.

Le Compte has also posted videos of himself speaking the dialect with Shanghai natives who live overseas.

"We share their stories and their life in another country, it's especially relevant to Shanghai people who have not been to these nations," Le Compte said.

Many Shanghai people living overseas speak better Shanghainese than the locals, especially the younger generations, he added.

Le Compte said he did not expect he would contribute to the promotion of the Shanghai dialect, but he hoped more people would end up speaking it. It would be an honor and pleasure if his posts encouraged his followers to learn and pass on the dialect, he said.

Le Compte, who rates his dialect skills 70 out of 100, said he hopes to one day be able to understand subtle variations in the dialect and also be capable enough to write a Shanghai farce.


Federico Demarco is studying other dialects in Shanghai. [CHINA DAILY]

Deeper look

Argentine Federico Demarco, a postgraduate linguistics student at Shanghai University, is traveling even further along the path of understanding dialects in Shanghai.

The first Argentine to pass HSK 6, the Chinese-language proficiency test's highest level, Demarco is researching a dialect spoken in Shanghai's Jinshan district.

Married to a woman from Shanghai, Demarco became fluent in the main Shanghai dialect while living abroad with his wife.

When he relocated to Shanghai in 2018, his curiosity and passion for Chinese dialects drove him to explore variants beyond the city's urban center. His enthusiasm led him to uncover the lesser-known dialect spoken in Jinshan, which is located an hour from downtown Shanghai.

Partnering with Jinshan resident Feng Xuanxin four years ago, Demarco began documenting the dialect's nuances through field research in rural villages. The pair made audio recordings and notes of pronunciations of words, vocabulary and cultural traditions. "We want to preserve the dialect before local knowledge disappears," Demarco said.

However, finding speakers of the dialect is becoming difficult as younger generations have shifted to speaking Mandarin, he said.

With his South American looks, locals are always surprised when Demarco speaks near-perfect Jinshan dialect. He also posts videos on Douyin, which have attracted hundreds of thousands of views, explaining different aspects of the dialect.

For the past four years, Demarco has taken long car trips to and from Jinshan on a regular basis to conduct interviews and make recordings.

He is intrigued by the structure of the Jinshan dialect. For instance, dialects spoken in Zhujing, Fengjing, and Xingta towns have eight tones, while dialects spoken in other areas of Jinshan have seven, and Shanghainese has just five. "Languages are my passion. I hope that these unique dialects can be passed on," he said.

The pair are planning to turn their research into a book on the Jinshan dialect.

Demarco is also a co-founder of an online free dictionary for the Wu dialect, one of the main dialects spoken south of the Yangtze River.


Academic Ding Dimeng has taught foreigners Shanghainese for three decades. [CHINA DAILY]

Conveyor of culture

Ding Dimeng, a Shanghai dialect expert and a retired associate professor of Chinese at Shanghai University, has written several books on the Shanghai dialect. Some include fun features such as games, riddles, tongue-twisters and poems, which have helped make them bestsellers.

Ding has been teaching Mandarin and the Shanghai dialect to Chinese and overseas students for three decades.

"Over the past 20 years, we have seen an increasing number of foreigners becoming interested in learning the Shanghai dialect," Ding said. Compared with Mandarin, foreigners can usually acquire the Shanghai dialect faster, as the pronunciations are easier for them, she added.

Foreigners are motivated by many reasons, including doing business locally, to learn Shanghainese. However, some of them are intrigued by the unique and pleasing tones of the dialect. It also helps them better fit into life in Shanghai, Ding said.

Spaniard Mario Alonso, a pianist who has lived in Shanghai for seven years, said it would be a waste of time to live in China without immersing himself in the local culture.

He taught himself Mandarin, and is reasonably fluent, and now hopes to pick up some Shanghainese colloquialisms. One expression he finds intriguing is "your forehead touches the ceiling", which is a way to describe a rare and lucky incident, such as winning the lottery.

After the release in December of Blossoms Shanghai, the hit television series of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, the Shanghai dialect has attracted even greater attention.

Ding is pleased to see the positive reaction, as well as foreigners sharing their dialect skills on social media.

"We used to have TV programs promoting the Shanghai dialect — and even speech competitions in the dialect — which were open to expats in the city. I think they (foreigners who speak the Shanghai dialect) are a positive influence on both domestic and overseas audiences," said Ding.

She welcomed foreigners learning the dialect as well as Shanghai people, both at home and abroad, promoting it.

"This is not only about the language, but also about Shanghai's culture and Chinese culture, as a dialect is the carrier of local cultures," Ding said.

Zheng Zheng and Zhang Kun in Shanghai contributed to this story.

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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