Children in 20 kindergartens in Shanghai will be encouraged to speak Shanghainese instead of Putonghua as part of a pilot programme the city’s education bureau launched this month, Chinese media reported.
While the experiment will see children speaking Shanghainese during “game sessions” between classes, the classes will still be instructed in Putonghua as required by Beijing. It’s not clear if and when more kindergartens or schools will be joining the programme.
While most local parents applauded this new move, which they believe will help preserve the local culture and dialect, many of the city’s immigrants fear that their children will feel alienated and even discriminated against. This seems to have added fuel to the tense relations between Shanghai “hukou” holders -- locals with residency registration and enjoying full benefits offered by the city -- and immigrants who often claim to have been treated as “second-class citizens”.
“Preserving Shanghai dialect should be encouraged,” said Li Ziran, a local Shanghainese mother with an infant son. “With the large number of immigrants pouring into Shanghai, fewer and fewer people can speak Shanghainese now.”
Li said the new policy might also help immigrant children pick up Shanghainese. “Kids really learn fast,” she added.
“We grew up speaking Shanghainese and it’s a dialect that means a lot to our generation,” said Shao Yu, another local Shanghainese mother.
While she agreed that children should speak Putonghua at school, Shao said she would speak to her daughter in Shanghainese at home.
Yet Xiao Yurong, a local Shanghainese mother whose husband doesn’t speak any Shanghai dialect, said she had given up speaking Shanghainese to her son.
Living with her in-laws who also don’t speak Shanghainese, Xia said it felt “alienating” to talk to her son in the dialect.
Robert Ran, a Shanghai immigrant who is originally from Chongqing, said he didn’t agree with the pilot programme.
“I don’t think it’s a priority for my son to learn Shanghainese,” he said. “At such a young age, he should first learn to speak Putonghua.”
On China’s social media on Thursday, news of the pilot programme triggered heated debate.
“This is ugly. Shanghai’s officials are encouraging discrimination,” a microblogger said. “What about the feelings of immigrant children?”
Many Shanghainese bloggers said they supported the programme.
“Growing up, I was the only one in my family who didn’t speak Shanghainese. My primary school banned Shanghainese and asked us to speak Putonghua only,” a Shanghainese blogger wrote, “Now I insist on speaking Shanghainese at home.”
More bloggers said they worried the new programme would create another wall between locals and immigrants.
China’s 230 million migrant workers, who leave hometowns for better jobs in bigger cities, have long been treated as inferiors with unequal access to education, health and other services tied to official residence status.