China's minority languages face threat of extinction

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - From Mongolian to Manchu, Bouyei, Blang and U, China reverberates with a cacophony of languages and dialects. But the sounds of its 1.3 billion people are in danger of becoming dramatically less diverse.

A Chinese national flag is seen in front of a residential site in downtown Shanghai in this March 4, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Aly Song

The country’s rapidly developing economy and a central government supported Mandarin promotion campaign is pushing some of these tongues to the brink of extinction, and Beijing must do more to help save them, their speakers say.

China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, and over 100 of their languages are in danger of dying out, according to the United Nations.

Yet more than 90 percent of China’s population are the dominant Han, and a few of the largest groups, like the Muslim Hui, are so well integrated that they only speak Chinese.

This leaves many of the languages of the smallest groups, like the traditionally shamanistic Hezhen, Oroqen and Ewenki peoples who live in China’s remote northeast, marginalized and under threat.

“I can only understand it a little and say a few everyday expressions. My children don’t understand it at all. They only learn Chinese,” said Du Mei, an Ewenki from Inner Mongolia.

“There are about 30,000 Ewenki and our language is on the verge of extinction. I often talk about the need here to speed up efforts to protect it,” she told Reuters on the sidelines of the on-going annual meeting of parliament, where she is a delegate.

“The government must do more to protect minority languages, and record them. The pace has not been fast enough.”

Minority languages are retreating apace across the globe, according to linguists and campaigners, giving in to pressure from “super languages” such as English, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin, as they spread online and on television.

In China, many parents who speak minority languages themselves are unwilling to pass them on to their children, fearful that it may affect their Mandarin skills, and hence chances of finding a good job when they leave school.

“I can speak it fluently, as can my family members. But my children can only say a few words. I speak to them in Chinese,” said Lei Jinmei, a She from the southeastern province of Fujian.

The United Nations classifies She as being critically endangered, with just 1,000 speakers left from a population of about 790,000.

“Our language is only spoken and has no written form, which makes protecting it much harder. It’s gradually vanishing.” Lei added.


Languages spoken by Chinese minorities with large populations such as Tibetan and Uighur are given broad official support, and efforts have been put into helping small groups with dying languages, including the Ewenki.

This week the government launched a new project to develop a vocal database of all China’s dialects and languages, to assist with preservation efforts.

But the fate of Manchu, mother tongue of the country’s last emperors, is a bleak warning of the challenges of keeping alive even languages from some populous and prosperous groups.

Only a few dozen people can speak Manchu these days out of a population of more than 10 million. The Manchus have been almost totally Sinified after years of the close interaction with the Han culture that now affects smaller, more remote groups.

“There are still a few people who can speak fluent Manchu, but there is no environment for it, which is a problem,” said Jin Yanshan, a Manchu and parliament delegate from the northeastern province of Liaoning.

“In my home village, the old people still use the odd word of Manchu, like for mother or father. And that’s it,” he added.

“More people can understand the written form though,” said Jin, as knowledge of the curling script, which looks a little like Arabic turned on its head, is needed by academics researching the imperial records.

Still, technological advances could offer a ray of hope, said Akbar Majit, a university professor and ethnic Kazak from the far western region of Xinjiang.

“When the Internet first started to become important people worried that Chinese would have no future as the online world would be dominated by English,” he said in flawless Mandarin.

“But that has not happened. And now we have more and more Chinese minority languages on the Internet,” Majit added, opening his mobile phone to show the daily news reports he gets in Kazak.

“Technology is the best hope,” he said.

Editing by Miral Fahmy