Film and technology saving China's dialects

Due to its size and demographic diversity, China has 130 languages, 10 major dialects of Mandarin and countless minor vernaculars.

It would be an understatement to say Zhao Yuhe was flabbergasted to receive a Best Actress Award at the Zurong Dialect Film Festival.

Standing warily in the spotlight on stage, the 83-year-old told the audience that she was surprised she had won because she is a farmer, illiterate, and does not speak a word of Mandarin.

While her lack of language skills and education might have prevented her finding jobs or communicating with her fellow countrymen, it was not an issue at the festival in Zhanjiang, south China’s Guangdong Province. It is one of the nation’s increasingly popular campaigns to preserve language diversity.

The annual festival received 582 films, featuring various dialects, in its second year. The number of entries doubled from last year, coming from all over the country and many of them were of high quality.

Zhao won for her role in “Mobile Phone,” which tells a story about deterring juvenile crime in Guangdong. The awards committee praised her portrayal of a left-behind senior citizen who struggles for survival.

The film features Leizhou dialect, a sub-branch of the Min language group spoken mostly by people living in Fujian and Guangdong provinces.

Among the other 16 award winners were films featuring Tibetan and Cantonese.

Although widely known as “Chinese” overseas, Mandarin, or putonghua which means common language, is not the only language spoken in China. Due to its size and demographic diversity, China has 130 languages, 10 major dialects of Mandarin and countless minor vernaculars, according to government statistics. “The Ethnologue: Languages of the World” goes even further, listing China as having 299 living languages, of which 275 are indigenous.

However, like many countries across the world, urbanization and ever-growing connectivity are causing some dialects to die out or risk becoming extinct.

“Films, along with songs and other performing arts, are crucial in maintaining linguistic diversity and preserving cultural heritage,” says Cao Zhiyun, a member of the Zurong film festival awards committee and head of the National Language Resources Protection Project.


A poster for the Zurong Dialect Film Festival

The state-sponsored project collaborates with 250 Chinese universities and research institutes and has recorded nearly 100 languages spoken in China since its launch in 2015.

In January, the central authorities issued a directive, stressing the importance of preserving dialects and local cultures.

Cao, a linguist specializing in Mandarin and its dialects and also vice president of Beijing Language and Culture University, says dialect preservation is no longer solely a government endeavor. It has also gained wide public support in recent years.

Grade schools and kindergartens in many parts of the country have introduced teaching of some subjects in local dialects. The number of talk shows and documentaries promoting dialects is steadily rising.

The campaign is also aided by the boom in artificial intelligence technology. iFlytek, a leading language input software provider with a particular strength in voice recognition, launched its dialect protection project recently, inviting users to visit its mobile app and read from a selection of set texts in their mother tongue.

About 666,000 people participated in the first week alone.

A list ranks users by the number of text recordings they have contributed. The person who tops the list on December 7 will win an iPhone X, according to the company.

Users can also leave a short personalized recording of their voice, which can be accessed via the app’s “search for a dialect” section, which has a “like” feature to encourage social media-like enthusiasm for dialects.

“After collecting voice samples, we want to use technology to study the dialects and boost their usage among the younger generations,” says Wu Junhua from iFlytek.

He says that, after Mandarin, the company’s voice recognition system performs best in Cantonese, the primary dialect in Guangdong and also widely used in Hong Kong. The system can understand 80 percent of the Cantonese spoken by its users. Tibetan and Uygur are two other languages it handles well.

The system can currently recognize a total of 21 languages and dialects, Wu says.

In China, the market for dialect-related cultural products and services remains huge.

Talkmate, a Chinese online education startup, offers courses in various dialects as part of the company’s partnership in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger project, which lists 144 languages in China that range from vulnerable to extinct.

“Even if one day there are no native speakers of certain dialect, people can still learn and revitalize it with the help of various apps like this,” says Cao, the linguist. “This is quite an innovative way to preserve languages.”

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