China is a diverse multi-ethnic country with a huge population of 1.4 billion people. It’s home to a rich array of ethnic groups who speak a wide range of languages.
Around 90 percent of the population speak Chinese, including some 84 million Cantonese speakers which is considered by many a separate language, not to mention several hundred million speakers of Shanghainese , Hokkien, Hakka and other Chinese dialects that are mutually intelligible to Mandarin Chinese.
A recent research volume, The Languages of China, identified 128 languages that are spoken in China in addition to Chinese. Of these, 64 have more than 10,000 speakers, 48 with 5,000 to 10,000 speakers, and 11 have 100 to 4,900 speakers.
In terms of the number of native language speakers, about half of those using a minority language have less than 10,000 speakers – these languages are considered endangered or facing endangerment.
A recent report indicates that there are currently 25 languages in China which now have less than 1,000 speakers. Some of these only have about a dozen speakers left and are gravely endangered.
Equally concerning is the loss of resources of oral culture embedded in these languages – like stories and legends, ballads, proverbs and folk theatres.
The Language preservation project
The first phase of the project spanned five years. Between 2015 and 2019, several hundred languages and dialects were surveyed across the country, with a total of 1,712 survey points, including more than 200 special sites for languages and dialects that were deemed endangered.
These included 123 non-Han ethnic languages, and 106 local Chinese dialects.
A series of landmark research publications have or are in the process of being published, including the Collection of Chinese Language and Culture (in 50 volumes), the Cassettes of Endangered Languages in China (in 50 volumes), and the Collections of Chinese Language Resources (arranged by province, in 100 volumes).
The second phase of the project started earlier this year in April and focuses on the scientific preservation of the resources of the Chinese dialects and minority languages.
The surveys focus on language structure and discourse.
Language structure relates to the sound system and grammar of a language. Some 2,000 lexical (that is, relating to words or the vocabulary of a language) features are used to examine the sound system and the lexicon, including a 1,200-word basic vocabulary to ensure a good description of the sound system.
Fifty sentences are then used to look at basic grammatical features —commonly-used sentences that reflect the key grammatical profile of the language. Natural conversation and storytelling data also forms part of the language survey.
This data also includes the social, historical and cultural background of the language, and its endangerment status, among others.
Many of the researchers are making recordings of as these vocabularies, along with examples of grammatical sentences and oral cultural traditions. This gives us a comprehensive picture of the language’s structure, characteristics and cultural activities (like ballads, folk stories, folk theatre, talking and singing).
It provides solid material for writing language descriptions and preserving language resources with the ultimate goal of presenting an account of traditional culture.
The Language Preservation Project and earlier research efforts have uncovered some of the most typologically complex languages.
For example, Lawurong, a language spoken by Tibetan people living in the Jinhuanhe river basin in Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, boasts a highly sophisticated phonological system of 44 simple consonants, yielding nearly 400 consonant combinations consisting of double, triple, quadruple and even quintuple clusters.
In several recent field trips, Professor Li Daqin and his team in Communication’s at the University of China discovered three previously unidentified languages – Suku, Songlin, and Zhahua—all spoken in Zayu County on the Tibet-Yunnan border.
And who knows, there may be more languages yet to discover.
Preventing language loss
Research on the preservation of language resources has achieved remarkable results over the past 20 years, but language endangerment and loss has not stopped.
As the government and society develop a deeper understanding of the need to protect endangered languages and other language resources, work on language preservation will enter a new phase.
China’s basic language policy remains to “vigorously promote the national common language and scientifically protect the languages of all ethnic groups”.
There are many challenges to China’s language policy and language planning. And it’s a daunting task to strike a balance between building a modern, outward looking nation and maintaining its distinctive cultural heritage and characteristics.
It’s inevitable that dominant languages will put pressure on ethnic minority languages, particularly when urbanisation is high on government agenda. But policy makers should seriously think about the issue of bilingualism as a way to preserve the country’s language vitality.
This article was co-published with Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. You can read the longer version of the article at Melbourne Asia Review.
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