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Changsha dialect classes help culture survive, thrive

Updated: Nov 7, 2023 By ZOU SHUO in Changsha China Daily Print
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Every Friday afternoon, 8-year-old Peng Daokun takes one of his favorite courses at school — Changsha dialect course.

The third grader at the Affiliated Primary School of Hunan Normal University in Changsha, Hunan province, started the course this semester along with two dozen classmates.

Peng's parents are from different places in Hunan and speak different dialects, so the family mainly relies on Mandarin to communicate. However, the boy does not use a dialect when he talks with his friends and classmates.

"I signed up for the course because I wanted to learn different dialects, which have basically disappeared among us students," he said.

Li Xiaoling, principal of the school, said it is responsible for promoting Mandarin, but it should also be more inclusive of the dialects of different local cultures.

She started the dialect course for students in September, and a dozen professors from tertiary institutions such as Hunan Normal University, Central South University and Changsha Normal University have signed up to teach. Apart from listening, speaking, reading and writing, students also gain knowledge about idioms, nursery rhymes, figures of speech and the culture behind the dialect, said Luo Xinru, a Chinese language professor at Hunan Normal University and one of the teachers of the course.

As the country has spent a lot of energy promoting standard Mandarin, lots of young children have not learned how to speak local dialects, she said.

Dong Ziyu, 8, another student taking the course, said his parents are from Shandong province and the family usually only speaks Mandarin. "I chose the course because I am interested in the Changsha dialect. I sometimes speak a few words of Changsha dialect when I get annoyed and want to express strong feelings," Dong said.

Zhou Sheng, a Changsha dialect enthusiast who also teaches the course, said he spent more than 10 years working in Beijing and Guangzhou, Guangdong province. When he returned to Changsha, the dialect sounded unfamiliar to him as it had been heavily influenced by Mandarin.

Many cities have long histories and distinct cultures, and dialects are an important part of those cultures, Zhou said.

As dialects become less widely known and face the threat of disappearing, local cultures will also vanish, he added.

"Many people are also worried about the disappearance of the dialect as it is becoming less used in daily lives," Zhou said. "It is even common for two Changsha people to speak Mandarin."

Luo said promoting the use of Mandarin and dialects is not contradictory, and children are more than capable of speaking both.

"Dialect protection is a future trend, and different dialects, which carry diverse cultures and values, should not, and will not, disappear," she said.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, one of the major problems was that too many local dialects and languages made it hard for people from different regions to communicate, Luo said. That's why the country has made great efforts to promote the use of standard Mandarin, and the work has achieved great outcomes, she said.

According to the Ministry of Education, the rate of speaking fluent Mandarin reached 80.7 percent of the population last year, while more than 95 percent of people were capable of writing Chinese characters.

That's why the country has started to preserve different language resources in recent years, she said.

The Ministry of Education launched the National Language Resource Protection Project in 2015 to conduct surveys and better protect China's language resources. The country has established the largest language resource database in the world, according to the ministry.

The news of the school's course has also won strong support from netizens, with many saying such courses should be open to students at different levels of education.

"Finally, we are teaching our children to speak dialects," said one netizen on Weibo.

Luo said she has received many inquiries from parents, teachers and principals about the dialect course.

She believes learning a dialect will gradually catch on among students and young people, and more schools will offer such courses.

"We do not expect all children taking the course to learn perfect Changsha dialect, but they should understand the importance of different dialects and perhaps be willing to dive into the research and protection of them as they grow older," Luo said.

Lyu Peirou contributed to this story.

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