The winning ways of minority languages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 August, 2010, 12:00am

The controversy over the use of Cantonese in Guangdong province resonates in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is, if anything, even more dominant than in Guangzhou.

In Hong Kong, when people - or even the government - talk about the Chinese language, they mean Cantonese, not Putonghua.

The current controversy is a reaction to a proposal by the provincial advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, that Cantonese news and satellite channels on Guangzhou TV be replaced by shows broadcast in Putonghua.

A subsequent online survey on the advisory body's website showed that 80 per cent of respondents were opposed to the proposal.

A rally in Guangzhou a week ago by up to 1,000 protesters was watched over by a heavy police contingent, and Hong Kong activists have also now joined the rallying cries.

Despite strong emotional support for Cantonese, dialects and minority languages in China have come under pressure as the government's policy of using Putonghua in state media, schools and government inexorably erode the role of other dialects and languages.

Strictly from a career standpoint, studying Mandarin makes sense. Even in minority areas such as Tibet, the Chinese government is emphasising the use of Putonghua.

Understandably, parents feel that it is to their children's advantage to be fluent in Putonghua, even if it means less proficiency in their native dialect.

This type of sentiment is reflected in Hong Kong as well, where many parents prefer their children to attend English-medium schools so that they will speak better English, even at the cost of learning other subjects.

But Beijing should be aware that China is such a vibrant country today in part because of its cultural, linguistic and historical diversity.

Occasionally, such as in wartime, an obscure language or dialect can even have a strategic value.

This was evident during fighting in the Pacific theatre during the second world war, when the United States looked for a way to counter Japanese code-breakers.

The answer was to use the ancient Navajo language to create an unbreakable code, which helped to win the war.

This little-known facet of the Pacific war was turned into the 2002 action movie Windtalkers, directed by John Woo and starring Nicolas Cage. Navajo Indian code talkers were deployed in the Pacific islands, where they used their language for radio communications between American troops.

The capture by US marines of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and other points was attributed to the role played by these 'windtalkers'.

Interestingly, a similar thing happened in China in 1979, when Chinese troops were sent to 'teach Vietnam a lesson' because Vietnam had invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge government, which had China's support.

Fearful that the Vietnamese would be able to listen in on Chinese communications, the Chinese military decided to use a little-known dialect - one spoken in Wenzhou , Zhejiang province - in their communications.

That episode certainly proves the value of dialects - especially obscure, little understood ones.

Cantonese, which is spoken by 70 million people, is unlikely to become a dead language in the foreseeable future.

But, while China is never going to be boring, it would certainly be a less interesting, and less lively, country if the day should come when minority languages and dialects have all died out and everyone spoke nothing but Putonghua.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. [email protected]