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Researchers Work to Save Endangered Languages


In a quiet study in downtown Beijing, Professor Sun Hongkai is putting the final touches on a book about the languages spoken by the Rouruo people living in southwest China before they disappear forever.

"We have identified more than 120 languages spoken by the Han people and the 55 ethnic minorities in China in the past 50 years," said Sun, president of the Chinese Association on Minority Languages. "Among them, more than 20 languages are used by less than 1,000 people and on the verge of extinction."

It's no exaggeration to say a language is the carrier of the knowledge and experiences accumulated by a nation or a group throughout history. Losing the language is like losing a group's identity. The gradual disappearance of a language is an irrevocable loss to the nation and the whole world, so colorful due to the multitude of cultures, Sun said.

"Time is getting shorter; we must hurry up to study and preserve them," said the professor, an honorary member of the Linguistic Society of America, a rare honor for the world's linguists.

Global Issue

The issue of endangered languages was highlighted globally in the 1980s. With the speeding up of economic development and the spread of the Internet and other high-tech communication, increasingly more minority languages are doomed to disappear in the global village.

After the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set 1993 as the year to save endangered languages, the International Symposium on Endangered Languages was held in November 1995 in Tokyo, Japan.

Linguists attending the seminar accounted that among the 6,760 languages found in the world, 234 had already disappeared. The experts predicted that about 70 percent of the world's languages will lose their communicational function in the 21st century and give way to local authoritative languages.

In May 1998, Director-General of UNESCO Federico Mayor wrote to member countries of the organization, inviting their linguists to join the effort to save endangered languages.

In China, the Ethnic Minority Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences undertook the task of organizing the country's linguists in carrying out general surveys of the languages and finding out ways to preserve them.

Chinese Languages

China is a country with many ethnic minorities whose languages differ greatly. One reason for this diversity is that many ethnic minorities speak more than one language, Sun explained.

In Taiwan Province, for example, the indigenous Gaoshan ethnic group uses more than 10 kinds of language which belong to the Austranasian language group.

During recent years, Sun and his colleagues at the Ethnic Minority Institute carried out field surveys and compiled detailed reports on the name, distribution, category and user population of the languages used by ethnic minorities in China.

Sun noted that while the 20 some languages used by less than 1,000 speakers are clearly on the verge of extinction, the situation is no better with languages of larger ethnic minorities.

The Manchurian ethnic minority, for instance, has a population of several million. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) founded by the Manchus, the language was once widely used. Today, however, only about a dozen elderly people in the Fuyu County of northeast China's Heilongjiang Province still use the language.

The same situation is true with many other languages. In the small regions where an ethnic minority concentrates, their own language is retained mostly among the elderly people. The younger generation often finds putonghua (standard Chinese) or some other kind of language more practical to use.

As the economy develops and more people leave their hometown in search of a better life, the distance is widening between the ethnic minority people and their mother tongues.

Sun pointed out that the Chinese government has always pursued the policy of equality among all ethnic minorities but no one can reverse the trend of some weak languages being replaced by more functional ones.

"Language is a social phenomenon and an individual choice," said Sun. "People have the right to choose whether or not to speak their mother tongue. We can draw up plans and take measures to slow down the disappearance of languages but we cannot stop this trend."

Sun has followed the disappearing process of the language of the Anong people in Southwest China for some 40 years. His findings have gained support from Jia Jiehua of the Ethnic Minority Language Office at the National Ethnic Affairs Commission.

In the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, for instance, there are areas where people purely speak Chinese, and areas where people use their own languages.

Jia said, "The situation is complicated, and our country fully respects the custom and the choice of the people in the autonomous regions."

Realistic Measures

As the carrier of a culture, a language embodies rich heritage with invaluable significance to the human civilization. Although the linguists cannot keep the languages alive in daily life, they can at least record and analyze them for future studies.

Starting in 1956, researchers gathered information from more than 1,500 survey sites. For instance, there were more than 90 sites for the Tibetan language, and more than 200 sites for the Yi language.

These surveys enabled the researchers to find out the internal difference of a language. From this basis, they were able to create written characters for 16 ethnic minorities who had no written language to record their history.

"With written characters, it's much easier for the ethnic minority people to preserve their spoken folklore and other traditions," Sun explained.

From 1986 to 1990, another major field survey was carried out. From more than 700 survey sites, some 70 researchers from ethnic minority institutions across the country collated important statistics, which form the basis for adaptations in the country's policies regarding ethnic minorities.

While the survey of the 1950s laid out a framework about the languages themselves, the new study aimed at raising the overall cultural level of ethnic minorities.

In the 1980s, the National Ethnic Affairs Commission initiated the publication of 57 annals on some 59 languages of ethnic minorities in China.

These books probe the thonology, lexicology, grammar, dialects, source and other features of the languages.

At present, Sun is leading Chinese linguists to compile a series of books on the newly discovered languages. They have already published 12 books, and some 30 more will be published in the coming years.

Through his works, Sun has discovered nearly 20 languages, including the language used by the Rouruo people of Yunnan Province. The Rouruo people form a sub-division of the Nu ethnic minority, which also has the sub-division of Anong people.

But more importantly, Sun has found nine languages spoken by the Qiang ethnic minority in southwest China's Sichuan Province. His discovery increased the number of Qiangic language branch in the Tibeto-Burmese language group to 13.

In addition, Sun is the chief editor of a series of dictionaries on ethnic minority languages. Each dictionary contains at least 10,000 words, carefully noted with their pronunciation, meaning and explained in speech context.

The dictionaries include up to 1,000 sentences that can best represent the features of the noun, verb and other words in a language.

In the Tibeto-Burmese language group, for instance, one simple verb can change into scores of forms in different contexts.

"It took me more than three hours to finish the variations of the verb 'eat'," said Sun, who went to southeast Tibet Autonomous Region twice in the 1970s and 1980s to study the languages of the Monba and Lhoba ethnic minorities and the Dengba people.

Twenty such dictionaries have been published, and more are planned for the coming years.

With the advance of technology and increasing funds from the government, the Ethnic Minority Institute and the Central Ethnic Minority University are able to record the languages using tape and video. Ultimately, the researchers will store the precious records with multi-media equipment.

"Salvaging a language is just as difficult and important as saving an endangered species," said Sun.

(China Daily November 15, 2001)

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