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400 Million People in China Can’t Speak The National Language

Posted: 09/23/2014 12:45 pm
david beckham chinese writing

David Beckham doesn’t speak Chinese, but it’s written on him.

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.

Putonghua remains such a problem for many of its users that there are regular Weibo posts that teach Chinese the proper usage of commonly mispronounced characters.

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.

[h/t Sinocism]

Photo: ahradio

  • Toothless

    Yeah this is why you see Chinese standing around shouting at each other.
    They dont understand what’s being said

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  • jixiang

    The idea that the Chinese are going to stop speaking Chinese in favour of English is laughable in the short term. Typical lazy journalism.

  • Tomás Francis Swinburne

    The last remark on Chinese adopting English is quite honestly hilarious. Putonghua for all its faults is still a unifying factor for 1.3 billion people. However, it still needs to be said, people deserve to have the right to their own localised culture.

  • Ollivier

    Like France almost 150 years ago, but not in a so dramatic position, about 15% of the population was able to speak french and the governments had to force people to speak/read/write french. Now we have to fight for save our local dialects, and event ask to make laws for that purpose.

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