The Worldwide Decline of National Minority Languages and Regional Dialects

With a total world population of about 7 billion people spread over almost 200 countries and speaking thousands of different languages and regional dialects, it is inevitable that a dominant national language must emerge in each of these countries in order to facilitate and to enable the inhabitants of these lands to interact and to communicate effectively with one another. This is especially necessary in multiethnic nations like China, India, United States, United Kingdom and many others. Hence, China has its uniform written Chinese script and a common spoken Mandarin (Putonghua), India has its official national language Hindi, and many important official regional languages like Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi and Tamil, and in both United States and United Kingdom the English language rules supreme over others.

First, let us consider the case of India, the second most populous country in the world with a population of about 1.2 billion. It has about 1600 regional dialects and numerous languages. The most commonly spoken is Hindi which has an estimated 40% of the population speaking it. However, when two educated Indians of different language streams meet and neither is familiar with the other’s tongue, they will probably need to communicate in English, the country’s subsidiary official language, which is regarded as a prestigious and popular language there for historical reasons. Despite this multiplicity of diverse languages and dialects, it has become a potential world economic powerhouse if it keeps up with its current vibrant economic development.

On the other hand, China, the most populous nation in the world with more than 1.3 billion people, has a less formidable language and dialect problem than India to contend with. Despite having a total of 55 minority ethnic components with their own languages and many Chinese regional dialects of the majority Han Chinese race which constitutes more about 92% of its overall citizenry in this vast landmass, it is fortunate to have a common written Chinese script and spoken Mandarin which all educated Chinese and minority groups are familiar with and they serve as the common medium for effective communication with each other. This is because all schools and other educational institutions and government bodies are required by law to adopt only Mandarin as their sole language of instruction and communication, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with the exception of the significant minority-run autonomous regions where Chinese and the native tongues are taught alongside each other. In private gatherings and at home Chinese dialects have continued to be spoken extensively, especially among the older generation. Then the Chinese and minority group parents began to realise that having a firm foundation and proficiency in Mandarin will bring with it more economic advantages and better employment prospects for their children. Over the decades, the popularity of Mandarin among the younger generation nationwide has increased steadily and this has led to the continuing decline of both the minority languages and regional Chinese dialects . The pace of their decline has begun to accelerate from the 1990s onwards as the Chinese central government intensifies its ongoing effort to strongly encourage the use of Mandarin in Public and in government and other public funded organisations. This policy has worked very successfully with the overwhelming majority of the provinces but has encountered some obstacles in the large and influential Guangdong Province, which has stood out like a sore thumb. Many people there would only adhere to this national policy publicly but, in their day-to-day interaction with one another and in the privacy of their own homes, Mandarin would largely be discarded by the citizenry in favour of their own Cantonese dialect. Other major dialects like Shanghainese and Beijinghua too have resisted the relentless threat to them posed by the ever popular and growing Mandarin usage by their younger kith and kin.

Be that as it may, in recent years there has been a clear and unmistakable sign that the national policy of gradually replacing the dialects with Mandarin aimed at promoting national unity and cohesiveness is bearing fruits even in its three largest cities, namely Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, where dialects are nowadays less and less used in public places and at home spearheaded by the better educated parents and the younger generation. Language experts have noted this trend in the other large urban centres too. They are therefore optimistic that this development is irreversible. They predict that all Chinese dialects will ultimately be abandoned in favour of Mandarin when the older generation has passed on. In the minority groups, the need to know the Chinese language and Mandarin for a better future has resulted in only a very tiny number of people who are still fluent with both their own written and spoken native tongues. The Chinese central government officially recognises only 80 major regional dialects. Hastening the rapid decline of the regional Chinese dialects and minority languages is the continuing strong parental influence and the manifold tangible advantages for their children to be facile with the lingua franca of China, Mandarin.

What about the state of the Cantonese dialect in the Special Autonomous Region of Hong Kong where it is the common dialect for all its more than 7-million residents, Cantonese and other chinese groups? It rejoined China only in 1997, after having been under the British colonial administration for the past 150 years. Under China’s One country, two systems doctrine, it is allowed to retain its existing capitalist system for a period of 50 years. Prior to 1997, Cantonese was not only the daily working language among the Chinese there but it was also the common medium of instruction in schools. With such a long-standing tradition, it is hardly surprising that the overwhelming majority of the Cantonese Hong-Kongers are non-Mandarin speakers, but their proficiency in the written Chinese language is on par with their compatriots on the Mainland. By tenaciously sticking to Cantonese as the common dialect there when the rest of China are increasingly switching to Mandarin as their common language, the Hong kong people have paid a very high price for its past neglect and disdain for the many advantages and benefits of being fluent speakers of Mandarin. To remedy the situation for their own future well-being, the Hong-Kongers, who are noted for their shrewdness, adaptability, resourcefulness which had enabled them to overcome many past crises, are now making a determined effort for the younger people to learn to speak Mandarin well. The schools there now use both Mandarin and Cantonese as their mediums of instruction. Besides their very poor command of Mandarin which has hindered their interactions with their Chinese compatriots outside the Guangdong area, the birth place of the Cantonese dialect , the average Hong-Konger’s level of English is also way below that of many other countries with past colonial connections with Britain. This is despite the fact that English has been taught in their schools, both in the past and at the present time, This, again, is attributable to the overpowering influence and convenience of speaking only Cantonese in their everyday life. This tends to make them feel uncomfortable and even diffident when speaking to non Cantonese-speaking English speakers. I believe that, as Cantonese is so much a part of their life in Hong Kong for so long now, it will take at least one more generation for Mandarin to become the common language in Hong Kong. Only time will tell.

I can still vividly recall a somewhat amusing and embarrassing episode in Beijing on my first visit there in 1982. My wife and I were in a tour group comprising wholly of Hong Kong residents, most of them were in the 40s and 50s age group. As none of them spoke Mandarin and as the tour guide could speak only impeccable Beijing Mandarin and no Cantonese at all, I had to come to their rescue by acting as an interpreter for both sides in my less than perfect Cantonese and Mandarin, much to their relief. To show their appreciation, the Hong Kong group bought me a present to thank me for my assistance and I felt impolite to decline.

In China’s offshore province of Taiwan, Mandarin became a political hot potato during the 8-year presidency of Chen Sui Bian from 2000 to 2008. He and his government were determined to declare Taiwan an independent country, and not an integral part of China. To further their aim, Chen was advocating that the Chinese Fujian Minnan dialect, which more than 80% of its citizens speak, be elevated to the status of the official national language of Taiwan. He went so far as to claim that the Taiwanese’s DNA is different from the Chinese on the Mainland and therefore they are not of the Chinese race in order to augment his case to turn Taiwan into a separate independent state. However, before this could come to fruition, Chen’s party was defeated by the opposition Nationalist Party, which was opposed to Taiwan becoming an independent nation. Chen is now serving a long prison sentence for a number of corruption convictions and for misuse of public funds during his terms of office.

What about in the other multiethnic countries in Southeast Asia like Singapore, where its citizens of Chinese descent constitute 74% of the local population? As in China, the Singapore Government too had officially launched a national campaign in 1979 aimed at making Mandarin the ultimate common spoken language of the entire Chinese community in place of the multitude of Chinese dialects brought by their ancestors from China when they settled in Singapore over the past 130 years, mainly from 1819 to around 1949 when it was still a British colony. The government leaders are making sustained efforts to convince the local Chinese population of the manifold advantages and benefits of switching to Mandarin from the then wide use of Chinese dialects as they firmly believe that the Chinese economy will continue to expand resulting in more trade and business dealings between Singapore and the fast emerging China and that the Chinese Singaporeans who are facile with the Chinese language and Mandarin will have an edge over others. Unlike Hong Kong, the Chinese language schools in Singapore had, from their early days, already opted to adopt Mandarin as the only medium of instruction. The sole use of Mandarin was later extended to cover the broadcasting industry and in the movie and the performing arts sectors. The government ministers also set an example by abstaining from making public speeches in the popular Chinese dialects like Hokkien as they had done earlier for political reasons. There was initial disquiet and apprehension over this new language policy, especially among the dialect-speaking older Chinese Singaporeans and some Chinese community and opinion leaders. However, through unwavering perseverance, rational reasoning, public debates and gentle public persuasion over the years, this government language policy has gradually started to bear fruits as parents began to realise that being proficient in both the Chinese language and Mandarin is the way forward to a better future for their children. This has led to a significant decline of dialects and the corresponding rise of Mandarin as the vehicle of communication among the Chinese community. The language experts are optimistic that Mandarin will ultimately replace the Chinese dialects as the common language of the Chinese community in Singapore after the older generation of Chinese there has left the scene. As anticipated by the Singapore Government earlier, the Chinese economy did expand exponentially in the past two decades and by 2011, it had exceeded that of Japan as the world’s number two economy after the US. Economists are confident that Chinese economy will continue to move up in the near future and that it will surpass the US as the number one world economy around 2020. Hopefully, Singapore will benefit much from this in its business and other dealings with China and will also improve further their existing friendly ties.

At the other end of the globe, English is the common language of another multicultural nation, the United Kingdom (UK). It is the union of four historically sovereign countries of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, each with its separate languages, traditions, customs and culture. For economic and historical reasons, they decided that it would be best for them to come together to form a larger entity of UK, also known as Great Britain, with England as the undisputed dominant leader in view of its military and economic prowess and its emerging influence in world affairs which would significantly benefit the other three components too. The heyday of UK was in the 19th and early 20th centuries when its colonial empire stretched from Europe to many other parts of the world. The unabashed boast then was that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. After world War II in 1945, there was a great influx of British colonial subjects from different parts of the world settling in the UK in search of a better Life. Thus, over time, this country has gradually become a multiethnic nation that it is today.

Owing to historical developments and the pervasive influence of the English language both at home and abroad, it has become the common language of UK and internationally at the expense of the minority Scottish, Irish and Welsh languages to the extent that nowadays their native tongues, both written and spoken, are almost completely alien to their people except to a small group of diehard nationalists among them. In the case of the new immigrants from the former British colonies, all will have to be proficient in English if they are to survive and do well in their new adopted country. The older generation of these immigrants have managed to keep their native languages and traditions alive at home and when interacting with those of their own community. However, with the younger generation of immigrants, born and bred in the UK, they will, over time, cease to be familiar with their parents’ languages, customs and traditions because of the social and educational environment and the compelling need to completely integrate themselves into the larger British community as an integral part of it and for a brighter future.

Across the Atlantic Ocean. the United States is truly a melting pot of races and cultures whose ancestors, excepting the native Americans, came from virtually all corners of the earth, but predominantly from the West. There is no official national language there but, for historical reasons, English has always been the de facto national language and spoken by almost every citizen, young and old. The native American languages, which had no written scripts, had virtually disappeared under the overwhelming impact of the English language. Be that as it may, the US has an enlightened policy towards all its minority languages and racial groups and freely allows them to preserve their own cultures and languages within their own community. Take the Chinese as a case in point. Following the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and US in 1979, there has been an influx of Chinese students and immigrants coming to that country. Consequently, in some major cities, a sizable Chinese community has sprung up, not counting the American-born Chinese and those who had migrated there from earlier times. To cater to the Chinese community’s needs, there are now Chinese kindergartens, supermarkets, newspapers and even Chinese-speaking churches in these cities which include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area. Among the minority races there, the Spanish-speaking group, mainly immigrants from north, south and central America, forms the largest non-white population in the US. However, all the immigrants’ offsprings, born and bred there, will need to become fully integrated into the mainstream American community with the passage of time. All these minority groups have contributed much to the development and prosperity of their adopted country and have enriched the life and culture of the American society. This is self-evident to discerning visitors to that country.

Lam Pin Foo

34 thoughts on “The Worldwide Decline of National Minority Languages and Regional Dialects

  1. My daughter is studying linguistics and has an interest in minority languages. While the facility of being able to communicate clearly is a strong reason for standardized languages, I find the loss of language diversity saddening.

    I hope you have/had a great birthday!

  2. Great blog, so much information presented in a beautiful way. Continued success to you. Happy 75th Birthday! May you have a spectacular birthday!!!

  3. I thank all of you warmly for your kind remarks and best wishes, and for your generous support for my blog. I should be grateful for your continuing support for it. I have made so many new friends from all over the world, thanks to my son, Chao Lam of the computer software company, Next Small Thing of Silicon Valley. He has given me the best birthday present that I could ever wish for.

  4. Well, being from India, i can tell you, this is absolutely true. There have been instances of extreme actions by revolutionary “protectors of the language” in my country. Good to see someone is noticing.
    A great Blog! and by the other comments, Happy 75th!
    Here’s to many more.

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