Yesterday, a flood of seemingly sensational headlines concerning language use in China crossed my transom. Here are a few of them, with embedded links to the articles:
- English-language studies 'destructive' to China's education, says CPPCC deputy
- Education ministry: 400 million Chinese can’t speak national language
- China: 400 Million Cannot Speak Mandarin
- 30% Chinese citizens can't speak Mandarin
On the first story, we've encountered accusations of increased attention to English being the cause of the deterioration of Chinese language skills many times before, e.g., "English Banned in Chinese Writing," "Creeping Romanization in Chinese," "English in China #2."
This anxious refrain recurs frequently enough that one wonders whether there really is a language "crisis" in China (as various concerned authorities claim) and whether the strong emphasis on English in education, commerce, and communication really is the cause. The fact that the charge against English this time comes from a national think tank (the Intelligence Research Academy) founded by the prestigious and powerful Chinese Academy of Science, and specifically from a deputy of the CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) who heads it, means that it carries a considerable amount of political weight, but that does not necessarily mean that the charge is linguistically true.
As for the revelation that hundreds of millions of people in China do not speak Mandarin, I'm not the least bit surprised. On the other hand, we may note that:
1. Merely with the statistics that have been provided, one can put all sorts of spins on the situation. One could, for example, just as well say that 70% / 900,000,000 Chinese DO speak Mandarin (though I seriously doubt that [see below]).
2. The statistics themselves are of a rather dubious and imprecise nature. For example, what does it mean that "a large number" do not speak Mandarin well? For other figures from 2004 and 2007, all very suspicious, see here.
The main problem with all such sweeping assertions about how many people speak or do not speak Mandarin is that Mandarin is not a monolithic entity. I would consider it a branch of the Sinitic language family (or group, if you think Sinitic is part of some other family) with many more or less mutually unintelligible varieties.
I've told this story many times before, but it bears repeating. My wife, Li-ching Chang, was born in Changyi, Shandong (not far from Qingdao). Both her parents spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shandong accent. When Li-ching was still a baby, they fled with her to Sichuan, far away to the southwest. As an adult, Li-ching was a superb teacher of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but up to the age of 11, when she again fled with her parents to Taiwan, she had grown up in Sichuan and spoke Mandarin à la Chengdu city (lots of tonal and lexical differences from MSM). In July, 1987, Li-ching and I went back to visit her old haunts in Chengdu, and she had no problem so long as she was in the city, because she would just shift gears from MSM to Chengdu-style Mandarin, with which she was very comfortable, having kept up contacts with many people from the city even after she had moved to Taiwan (many of them fled from Sichuan to Taiwan at the same time her family did) and then came to America. However, once we went outside Chengdu, Li-ching's ability to understand local speech diminished rapidly. When we went to villages around Leshan (140 miles away) and Emeishan (89 miles distant), she couldn't comprehend a word of what the indigenes were saying. In fact, Li-ching thought that they were "minority" people like the Yi and was astonished to find out that they were Han (i.e., Sinitic speakers).
The late Jerry Norman, who is considered by many to be one of the best Chinese linguists of the second half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, once told me privately that he thought that there were at least 300 different varieties of Mandarin that were more or less mutually unintelligible, and that they were essentially different languages, not dialects. But Jerry, who did not relish controversy and confrontation, said that he would never make such a statement in public or in print. When people dare to raise these issues with regard to the various varieties of Chinese / Sinitic, it can lead to volatile reactions. Fortunately, here on Language Log, most commenters are civilized and reasonable, so we can have discussions of the sort that have been going on for the last couple of weeks, here and here.