Language Diversity in China

By Garreth Byrne

Language scholars list ten different varieties of Chinese, although some sources only list eight because the last two are only spoken by less than 1% of the population. These variants are written using Chinese characters and do not have their own written form.

Officially, there are 302 living languages in China. Depending on your definition of “language” and “dialect”, this number can vary somewhat. The number of speakers of many of China’s minority languages and dialects has decreased in recent years, and some of them are now considered endangered.

Early in December 2021 the official Xinhua news agency in China reported Ministry for Education intentions on the standardisation of Chinese language learning throughout the huge country. The number of Chinese people who speak Putonghua (standard Mandarin Chinese) will be increased to 85% of the national population by 2025. The Ministry of Education circular stressed the fundamental role that schools play in the teaching of the standard language and its characters.

It called for wider access to standardised Chinese education in ethnic minority areas, while at the same time urging protection of the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities. About 94% of China’s 1.45 billion population are Han. The rest belong to ethnic minorities.

Just how fragile some minority languages are can be gleaned from the fact that seven languages today are being spoken by less than 100 people, while another 15 languages have just 1,000 speakers, according to a survey conducted by Sun Hongkai, a language expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Beijing News reported that both government and social groups have begun protection efforts for endangered minority languages. For geographical and economic reasons, it looks like a losing struggle for some.

Language endangerment is not confined to China. We know that in Cornwall, Southwest England, the last native speaker of Cornish died many years ago (there are archival tape recordings) and a Cornish language society has been teaching the language to persons interested in the culture. Many years ago, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language estimated that there were more than 6,000 languages across the world, and that many of them might not be viable within a hundred years.

In Ireland, we are conscious of the fragile condition of spoken Irish in areas, mostly close to the sea, officially described as the Gaeltacht. In several of these so-called Breac-Gaeltacht locations (officially bilingual with a heavy tendency towards English), Irish seems to vanish as a teanga dhuchais, i.e. household daily language.

In politically sensitive provinces and autonomous areas of China where Han influx and settlement is obvious, speakers of local languages feel that their languages are under cultural and demographic pressure. Manchurian, Uighur, Kyrgyz and Tibetan are often mentioned in international media reports. More than language and culture are under threat. Human freedom and dignity are ruthlessly trampled upon.

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