Getting China’s Tower of Babel on record

Map_of_sinitic_dialect_-_English_version.svgMichael Wu, 20, a student at Peking University, grew up in Shanghai. But when he wants to talk to his cousins in Hainan, he needs to bring his mother along to interpret the conversation.

The cousins in Hainan speak two kinds of Hainan dialect. “I actually cannot understand either of them,” Wu says. “It’s actually not much good for me to [try to] communicate with them.”

In China, that’s a common problem: The differences in dialects are so vast they amount to different languages – possibly more than 3,000 variations, according to some estimates.

It’s one of the reasons that standard Beijing Mandarin has become the lingua franca of schools, businesses and government in China. But that uniformity comes at a cost:

The rapid loss of many Chinese dialects

Now two Americans have taken on a daunting task: trying to get an audio record of all the thousands of China’s languages and dialects before they disappear.

Linguists Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are enlisting volunteers to canvass the country to capture both the languages and the stories of all of China’s 2,862 counties and 34 provincial areas. Phonemica, founded last year, now has about 200 Chinese and Chinese-speaking foreign volunteers lined up to record their friends, parents and grandparents, telling a story in fangyan (regional speech).

“The idea is that we want to record it all,” says Mr. Hansen. “And the only way to do this is through a crowd-sourced approach. We’re trying to get people involved who will go to their hometowns and record friends and relatives.”

“It is absolutely unique,” said Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, by email. “No one else is attempting to do this for Sinitic” (the languages of China).

As a first language standard Mandarin

Phonemica is nearly out of time. Scholars say that a few generations from now, all of China will speak as a first language standard Mandarin, the Beijing dialect that is taught in schools and used by new migrants to cities as well as businesspeople in every province.

Richard VanNess Simmons, a Rutgers professor of Chinese, says that as China’s economy has taken off over the past 20 years, “Mandarin has become the language that gets you somewhere and the language that parents want their kids to learn.” Even parents who speak regional dialects prefer that their children speak Mandarin at home.

“It’s happening so fast it’s almost too fast to document,” he says.

The Chinese government also has taken on the task of recording the country’s dialects, but its Chinese Language Resource Audio Database (中国语言资源有声数据) is still in the “fieldwork” stage, says Mr. Simmons, and “no results have yet been published as far as I know.”

An earlier effort by the Chinese Academy of Science in the 1990s, he says, produced a small series of about 20 recordings of dialects on audiotape and in book form. The academy then put out a DVD version that required users to install an old browser for Windows, so “it didn’t end up being very useful in digital form.”

Virtually unlimited storage in the era of cloud computing means Phonemica can record as many dialects as it wants without worry about technology becoming obsolete. The bigger challenge has been in getting drumming up enough volunteers to make recordings.

Not enough volunteers to make recordings

The site’s original model was the Speech Accent Archive created by George Mason University in Virginia, which records hundreds of English speakers reading the same English-language paragraph with different accents, from Brooklynese to Dutch. But Messrs. Hansen and Parker felt that there was also value in recording family stories, in the style of StoryCorps, an archive of 45,000 stories told by Americans to each other.

So far, the site has 50 stories on record, ranging from young people talking about their favorite Chinese pop stars to grandparents remembering being sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Hsieh, a 61-year-old from Pingtung County, Taiwan, tells a story in the Hakka Sixian dialect. There are more than 30 million native speakers of Hakka, Mr. Parker says, but the Sixian dialect group is much smaller, mostly in the northwest part of Taiwan. Song Hongcheng, 50, from Fangxian in Hubei province, tells a story in the Fangzian dialect, a subset of Central Plains Mandarin, which has about 300,000 speakers.

So far the project has relied too heavily on young people – students interviewing fellow students – with not enough contribution from older generations, according to Mr. Simmons, who serves as an informal adviser to the project. He advised Phonemica to try to record people over the age of 30, and preferably over 60. Younger people, even if they speak in a dialect, tend to throw in standard Mandarin words more often than their grandparents would.

Leonardo Liu, 40, who has already recorded his parents, his wife and several colleagues, says the project made him wonder what it would have been like to hear the voice of Confucius. “Maybe 1,000 or 2,000 years later, we’ll be the ancient people. If the website can keep our voices and our accent, it will be great.”

P.S.  Click here to listen to recordings from the Phonemica project.

Source: – Getting China’s Tower of Babel on Record 

Categories: Education & Employment

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7 replies

  1. This is most interesting, Alfred. I remember learning for the first time more than a decade ago that there were actually more than two languages in China – the assumption being that Mandarin and Cantonese were it. But it would be several more years before I learned just how false the belief that China is a bilingual nation really was. This puts all that into a solid perspective and draws attention to the fact that the linguistic diversity is in danger of disappearing.


  2. Reblogged this on middlekingdom1of10boyz and commented:
    This is something that most people that haven’t lived here in China don’t realize, there are more languages spoken here that sound like Chinese but really aren’t. This is one of the main problem I have with learning the language here, the tonations of syllables changes the meaning. My mandarin speaking friends tell me that the Haiyangese is not mandarin so there is at least some portion of the Shandong peninsula that should not be the tan color of mandarin.
    What it really means is that the Mandarin that is shown is in tan is many various shades of tan because mandarin is going to be different even from province to province.


  3. Reblogged this on Language Thief and commented:
    Amazing that the lingual differentiation can be so widespread in China! Even from town to town! I remember hearing the different accents of mandarin from the north to the south and how easily the accents could be mistook for a completely new language!

    This is a great project and goal!



  1. Do Hong Kongers speak a language? | China Daily Mail
  2. China, Hong Kong and Cantonese: Dialect dialectic | China Daily Mail

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