400 Million People in China Can’t Speak The National LanguagePosted: 09/23/2014 12:45 pm
Putonghua, or Mandarin, has been pushed by authorities in Beijing as a national language to resolve communication problems stemming from a multitude of regional dialects. The idea is no matter what your native tongue, you’ll be able to do business in Putonghua. But while it may seem like everybody now speaks it, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Approximately 400 million Chinese citizens, or about 30 percent of the population, do not have the ability to converse in Putonghua, reports Xinhua News Network. The claim was made by Li Weihong, Deputy director of the National Education Department and head of the National Language Writing Work Committee, at an activity to promote Putonghua.
Li clarified that 70 percent of China’s population has acceptable Putonghua ability, and that 95 percent of the population can read Chinese characters. However, Li warned that only 10 percent of Chinese are actually fluent in Putonghua, and that modern spoken vernacular is taking over literary Chinese.
The government justifies its expansion of Putonghua to “(eliminate) the estrangement between dialects for the sake of social communication”, but some regions and cultures naturally view a top-down, Beijing-pushed national language as a threat to local culture.
That is particularly acute here in Guangdong, where Cantonese seems to be continually under threat. A rumor that local news programming would drop Cantonese anchors in favor of Putonghua speakers has caused outrage in the province. But this isn’t the only pocket of resistance. A Shanghai subway driver was reported to be making announcements in Shanghainese, in defiance of an order to use Putonghua. And it’s not as though these fears are unfounded: the Manchu minority that once ruled all of China is now down to its last two native speakers.
Nevertheless, despite its position as the official language, Putonghua still faces challenges of its own. A generation of computer and mobile phone use has resulted in writing skills being atrophied, with many born-and-raised Chinese people forgetting how to write certain characters. This may be the inspiration behind a currently televised competition simply about writing in Chinese.
But the biggest threat to Putonghua may be lurking from within. For a generation, Chinese students have been valiantly trying to learn to read and speak English. The efforts so far have produced a basic enough understanding to create the memes “ungelibable” and “no zuo no die“, an improper use of Chinglish for comedic effect. Yet, one day, enough Chinese may learn English well enough to give the official language a run for its money.