As Expo looms, officials battle local dialect again

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am

Shanghai authorities have launched a week of events aimed at stamping out what they see as an obstacle to good public communication - the local dialect.

The Putonghua Promotional Week is the city's 12th annual push to boost the use of standard Chinese, but it comes at a crucial time, as the city is gearing up for its biggest-ever influx of visitors.

There are just seven months left before the Shanghai World Expo 2010 opens, and officials estimate more than 70 million tourists will visit over the fair's six-month run. With about 95 per cent of them expected to come from cities around the country, there is pressure to make sure that welcome does not sound off-key.

At the opening ceremony for the week-long Putonghua campaign, the municipal government also launched an online portal to allow residents to point out public notices that use incorrect or non-standard Chinese or English - another sign of their keenness to purge the city of linguistic faux pas ahead of the Expo.

The Putonghua week ties in with a nationwide drive, but follows a series of long-running TV and radio adverts in recent months that portray the Shanghainese dialect as being uncivilised or backward, and unfit for public use. Their tone is similar to other government adverts trying to stamp out habits such as littering and the wearing of pyjamas in the street.

But the campaign has so far been only partially successful.

Indigenous Shanghai locals continue to express pride in their language, a subset of the Wu group of dialects spoken across the Yangtze River Delta area, which sounds almost unintelligible to most outsiders.

The dialect continues to be widely spoken throughout the city, and many older residents have difficulty communicating in Putonghua.

'My working day is done in Putonghua, but I much prefer speaking in Shanghainese,' said a middle-aged taxi driver, who only gave his surname Wang. 'Everyone in our neighbourhood speaks Shanghainese. My friends and family would look at me funny if I spoke to them in Putonghua. It feels false.'

Several local radio and television channels broadcast sitcoms, chat shows and even legal-advice programmes in the dialect.

Even on radio channels that use Putonghua, call-show hosts frequently have to ask repeatedly for callers to switch out of Shanghainese - sometimes to no avail.

However, as in most of the mainland, schoolteachers are banned from using their native dialect in the classroom. Coupled with large numbers of non-Shanghainese-speaking immigrants, this has had an impact on the younger generation.

'Young people these days don't know how to speak Shanghainese properly,' said a local resident who would not give her name. 'Perhaps the government should be promoting it rather than Putonghua.'