About 30 percent of China’s 1.3 billion population, 400 million people, can’t communicate in Mandarin, according to the State Language Commission, and the Chinese government is worried.
Brown University sophomore Fang has this to say.
As a person who was born and raised in Beijing, I use Mandarin in almost every aspect of my life without problem and my friends in Beijing all speak Mandarin, so it does shock me that 400 million Chinese don’t even speak the language that I used to take for granted.
However, as I get to know more and more people from different parts of China, I start to realize that not every Chinese treats Mandarin the same way as I do, and my own experience of speaking Mandarin is not at all typical in China.
This summer, while traveling in Sichuan, my friends and I had problems with the local language, Sichuanhua(四川话), which sounds somewhat unintelligible to us. Local people speak Sichuanhua with their friends and families; shopkeepers and restaurant owners usually do business in Sichuanhua (though they can speak Mandarin); there are even radio and TV programs in Sichuanhua! I also visited a friend’s high school in Chengdu (provincial capital of Sichuan), where students speak Sichuanhua to each other even though schools are required to teach Mandarin in class. In Sichuan, I felt familiar yet strange: I know I’m in China, but I could neither understand nor communicate with local people because I felt awkward that I might “intrude” into their normal lives if I speak Mandarin, so it is speaking Mandarin that poses real problems in Sichuan.
I have a Chinese friend who made a very interesting point about language: people speak languages based on their needs. Imagine that if I grew up in Sichuan and worked there for my entire life, why would I need to speak Mandarin fluently or even speak it if life is much easier in Sichuanhua? Similarly, if 70% of the population can speak Mandarin but only 10% of that 70% can speak it fluently, it could imply that most people don’t need to speak Mandarin. From a government standpoint, it might be true that having more people speak Mandarin somewhat reinforces national unity, but language is rather a natural thing that we could never frame it within a certain standard. A country sets its official language to make bureaucratic process easier but not to force everyone to speak it. On an individual level, as long as a person doesn’t find any problem with a language that he or she speaks in daily life, there’s no need to switch to another language or speak a language under a certain standard set by the authority.
Furthermore, enforcing linguistic unity risks losing cultural diversity. For most people, speaking two languages fluently—both Mandarin and a local dialect— is a challenge, so people might speak better Mandarin at the cost of losing fluency in their respective dialects, which also play an important part in Chinese linguistic culture. If we can accept and even embrace different cuisines and habits across different regions in China, why can’t we accept and embrace different dialects?
Fang is a senior at Brown University. You can contact Fang Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.