Dialects endangered by modernization

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Despite government efforts to protect minority languages, they are still faced with the danger of disappearing due to modernization, top advisers have warned.

There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China and more than 100 of the country's dialect languages are in danger of dying out, according to the United Nations.

"The government has tried to protect minority languages by recording them, although the pace has not been fast enough to match the speed of their disappearance," said Li Lan, professor of dialectology at the Institute of Linguistics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Han people, who account for more than 90 percent of the population in China, along with the other larger groups such as Hui, speak Mandarin as their main language.

Therefore, the spread of Mandarin leaves many languages of smaller groups, such as the traditionally shamanistic Hezhe, Oroqen and Ewenki people who live in China's far northeast, marginalized and under threat.

"The fate of Manchu, the mother tongue of the country's last emperors, is facing a challenge to survive as only a few dozen people, all aged over 70, can speak Manchu out of a population of more than 10 million," said Li.

The young generations of Manchus are becoming similar to the Han people after years of close interaction with the Han culture, and that culture is now influencing smaller, more remote groups.

Minority languages have been ignored across the world as most attention has been given to "super languages" such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin, which spread through the Internet and television.

On Feb 19, 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger by showing the situation in the form of a map for the first time.

Six degrees of endangerment - including extinct, critically endangered and severely endangered - described the current situation of many languages.

"It was estimated that 90 percent of the 6,000 languages in the world would disappear by the end of the century, replaced by major languages such as English, if no further protection is carried out," said Li.

With the modernizing campaign to spread Mandarin and encourage the use of English in China as the most useful foreign language, many of the younger generations failed to learn local dialects.

"Many parents who speak minority languages or local dialects are unwilling to pass them on to their children because they fear it will affect their Mandarin skills and therefore their chances of finding a good job when they leave school," said Li.

Languages spoken by Chinese minorities with large populations, such as Tibetan and Uygur, are given broad official support, and efforts have been made to help small groups with dying languages, including the Ewenki.

"Last year the government launched a few projects to develop a vocal database of all China's dialects and languages to assist with preservation efforts," said Li.

In addition, Chinese written characters and ancient literature have also been modernized.

On the first day of the annual session of the CPPCC, Pan Qinglin, vice-president of Tianjin Overseas Chinese Federation, suggested that China should restore the use of traditional characters on the mainland.

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