Monday, April 09, 2007

Shenzhen: Diversity in Languages

On my last foray into HK, my friend, Jason, and I were waiting in the Luo Hu customs line. The paperwork usually goes by pretty quick, but for some reason, it took really long this time. So we stood there and exhausted all the small talk we could think off. In the middle of our 35 minutes wait, Jason said something very interesting to me.

“Check this out, there are atleast 10 languages being spoken in these 3 lines.”

This was very true. Since we were in the “foreigners” line going into HK, we were next to people from all over the world (HK is the world’s city right?!). People were speaking French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Cantonese, ect. It was incredible. What was interesting was also being able to recognize all of the languages being spoken. Although I didn't recognize the content, I could most definitely differentiate the Hebrew from the German.

In general, I consider myself decently knowledgeable about different languages. Here are my stats:

  • I studied French and a bit of Spanish when I went to school. Although my vocabulary has waned, I can still understand it if people talk slow enough.
  • I am a native speaker of Chinese. I have traveled to many parts of China and can understand many of the variations on 普通话 (Mandarin). Although I still need to improve in my reading and writing abilities, I’m slowly getting there. My current gf is helping me with Cantonese, but that’s definitely a work in progress.
  • I am a native speaker of English.
  • I have traveled to many places and have met many different people all around the world. They have spoken languages from Portuguese to Arabic, and from Japanese to Swahili.

Although I consider myself a relatively “global” or worldly person, my language training didn't prepare me for a day on the 106 bus going to work.

It was a Saturday morning and I was going to work for my required half day. I was hung over from the previous night’s partying at UBar (the Shenzhen westerner’s bar). After getting on the bus, I was sitting near the back and trying to relax. There was basically no one on the bus.

After a couple of stops a group of 5 migrant workers got on and proceeded to sit directly behind me. The peace & quiet I was accustomed to quickly became loud rings of conversation. Maybe it was my sensitivity to sound (from my hang over), but the talking I heard came in a deep voice, saying “aiufbhalh gapia lsdkljgi uhrja, aiutaerla gjkd fgak;iu wregiuha.”

What the hell is going on? Why is this guy speaking gibberish?

I quickly turn back and see what’s going on. I see that the oldest guy in the group was preaching didactically to his friends. Everyone was attentive and nodding their head, processing what he was saying. Even after I focused in and concentrated on his voice, I still could not understand. Further yet, I didn't recognize it at all. It was just “wirue, owyqpkdh oiurh (point, headnod). Ihwe oeiu pjkhf woihns woeinf woieu kljsder!”

I seriously could not even recognize that these people were speaking a language, let alone what they were saying. With my extensive experience with languages, I found this “ignorance” fascinating and disturbing.

Here’s what I was thinking:

  • How good are these migrant workers’s 普通话?
  • How come I cant understand a dialect of Chinese? I’ve seen, heard and experienced soo many things in this country. How do I have no ability to even recognize what’s being said as a language?
  • Shenzhen definitely surprises me every single day. This is one reason it is incredibly fun to live in a diverse city. I’ve lived in NYC and I frequently commute to Hong Kong. I just never thought Shenzhen could be as eclectic as these 2 global cities.
  • This is the reason Mandarin is sooo important. Without it, Chinese people would never be able to communicate with each other. Thank god秦始皇 (the First Emperor of Qin) united the country and established the common language.
  • This is definitely the reason why Cantonese is way less important now in Shenzhen than ever before. People have stated that just 10 years ago, it would be impossible to function in Guangdong province without Cantonese. Now Cantonese is just an afterthought. Mandarin rules.

I guess I’m just glad that I can speak and understand two of the world’s most significant languages: Chinese and English. Otherwise I would be most lost everywhere.


Anonymous said...

People speak different langauges can never understand each other. That is why so-called cross-cultural understanding is a whim.

Caliboy said...

秦始皇 only unified the written language. Mandarin didn't even become the formal court language until the Ming and Qing dynasties. (In the early Ming, when the capital was in Nanjing, the Nanjing dialect was the (官話) or "official speech."

It really wasn't until after the 1911 Revolution that there was really a nationwide push to make Mandarin the standard for everyone in China, and it was really the Communists that have been most effective in making Mandarin speaking widespread.

That being said, in 2004, the China Daily reported that only 53% of PRC's population spoke Mandarin. Considering the China Daily's position as a propaganda organ, I wouldn't be surprised if the actual number is actually less than 50%.

Mike said...

Agreed, Mandarin as we know it is incredibly different from what it was in the past. I focused on 秦始皇 because he's creditied for unifying China, establishing a legal code and solidifying the written language. (Remember in Hero where there were 17 ways to write a character? Not after 秦始皇!) haha.

I'm actually incredibly surprised by this report. I guess it's kind of expected though. Most of China's population is still rural based. In a place where some people never leave their village, what's the use of 普通话?

I wonder what the percentage would be for different demographics based on age, ethnicity and location...