Complicated Chinese language growing

Professors and Chinese students speak about the importance of Chinese dialect: Wenzhounese

Professor Yuanyuan Hu gave a lecture on March 2, about Wenzhounese, a Chinese dialect that is flourishing in New York, yet diminishing in China. She spoke about her research on this topic while on her sabbatical during the 2015-2016 school year.

“This lecture aimed to find users of Wenzhounese in New York City to raise awareness of this language as a heritage language in immigrant families and as a dialect in China,” Hu said.

Hu told her story through an interesting series of slides and interactive games with fellow Chinese students.  She started by explaining that there is no singular Chinese language. In China, there are 56 different ethnic groups and a majority of them speak their own languages. In order to communicate with each other, Modern Standard Mandarin was created. The different ethnic groups use this and written Chinese to communicate. Of these 56 ethnic groups, there are six major southern dialects, plus the standard Mandarin. Wenzhounese, Hu explained, was part of the Wu dialect family. But, even in Wenzhou, where Wenzhounese is spoken, there are different variations in the pronunciations of words. To exemplify this, Hu and Leilei Huang, a Chinese student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, spoke to each other in Wenzhounese. Though they grew up only 25 miles apart, there were certain times when they could not understand what the other was saying. These variations in language were very surprising.

“I learned so much more about Chinese dialects. I knew a little about Mandarin Chinese, like they have four tones, but I just learned that they have eight tones in Wenzhounese! That’s a lot!” senior German major Lilli Kohler-Busch said.

After a few more interactive games and more background on the Wenzhounese culture in China, Hu dived into the presentation of her research. There is an estimated 130,000 Wenzhounese immigrants living in New York City. Hu decided to focus her research, therefore, on New York and the immigrants who speak it there. She became concerned about the alarming decline of Wenzhounese in China and wanted to see how it was flourishing in New York. Hu collected her research from various sources: observation, interviews and documentary reviews.  She walked around Flushing, Queens, which has one of the largest and fastest growing Chinatown places in New York City and Manhattan. Listening to local people speak, she recognized Wenzhounese every time she heard it; which was often. On the subway, inside a church and in market places, Hu listened and took pictures wherever she could. She even interviewed a family of six, finding that the son and daughter, though raised in New York, spoke Wenzhounese and English. Through all this research, Hu says that, “the Wenzhounese community in Flushing is expanding.”

Though it is growing in New York, this dialect is rapidly declining in use in China. When languages are no longer spoken, they die and become part of old history. Hu wants to document and raise awareness of her language. Wenzhounese is a complicated language to learn but it is one of the many dialects that make up China. It is a language in desperate need of protection.

“More efforts are needed not only to raise awareness of linguistic diversity but also to document and maintain language resources in the world,” she said. Hu was the just the first speaker of two in this lecture, following her was Dong Isbister, associate professor of women’s and gender studies. Isbister touched on how these different dialects affect how healthcare is done in the U.S. Many Chinese people are only given “Chinese” translators, without regard to certain dialects. This causes many problems because Chinese has many dialects. More awareness is needed in this area as well, to better help those Chinese immigrants get the healthcare they need.

“It was interesting to hear the differences in the Chinese dialects and the barriers it creates in healthcare,” Claudine Pied said.

The whole talk was very informative on Chinese dialects and how many complications there are surrounding them. By providing more information on this language, it shows Wenzhounese’s importance as a heritage language and, hopefully, inspires people to learn more about it, slowing it’s decline and giving Wenzhounese a place with the well-spoken languages today.