China is huge. This country of 1.4 billion covers an area of nearly 10 million square kilometers — the third largest in the world based on land area. People are still shocked, though, to learn that China has dozens and dozens of languages and dialects, many mutually unintelligible, and that Mandarin — China’s official language — is not the mother tongue for many Chinese.
In Shanghai, a city of 24 million, it’s also quite complicated.
You see, Shanghai is part of the Yangtze River Delta region, an area covering roughly 358,000 square kilometers and home to some 220 million. The region was initially made up of the Wu people, who speak a family of dialects known as Wu Chinese, with 80 million native speakers. Among them is Shanghainese which, for all intents and purposes, can be completely different to Mandarin Chinese.
I say “can be” because, like I said earlier, it’s complicated.
According to Dr Yan Jiang of the SOAS University of London, Shanghainese today has three distinct types, all still heard to varying degrees around Shanghai.
There’s the old variant, typically used by people born in the 1920s and ‘30s. Then there’s the middle variant, now commonly known as the “standard variant”, used mostly by middle-aged locals and people in urban Shanghai. And finally, where it gets complicated, you have the new variant: mostly used by young people who don’t have a solid grasp on the language and therefore “code mix”, throwing words from Mandarin, and even English, into their Shanghainese.
A bit of history...
Way back in 1950, Mandarin, initially a dialect from Beijing, became China’s official language. From 1992, Shanghainese was discouraged from use in schools as the government pushed for a Mandarin education system. Coupled with the astonishing development in Shanghai over the past 40 years which led to 40% of the city’s residents being from outside the area and, therefore, usually not speakers of the local language, Shanghainese has taken a massive hit.
Many local children today can understand the language, but they can’t speak it to a proficient level. That’s because Shanghainese is largely only spoken and passed on in the home through family and not formal education.
Luckily, I was able to find the only school in Shanghai still teaching the dialect, LTL Mandarin. They offered to give me a one-month, one-on-one introduction course with their Shanghaiese teacher, Alex Wang.
Wang says that, apart from formal study, the best way to learn Shanghainese is to find some local friends and make them your personal tutors every time you meet up with them.
Shanghainese isn’t a popular language for official study, and majority of the students at LTL Mandarin are foreigners.
I also tried out an app by a British company called uTalk, which recently added Shanghainese to their list of over 140 languages.
It’s pretty thorough, but the problem with the uTalk app for me personally, at this stage of learning, is that I still haven’t learned fully how to make many of the sounds of Shanghainese, so reading and listening alone aren’t enough. I still need face-to-face learning so I can study how the teacher’s mouth forms certain sounds. I’ll still definitely use it for sharpening my listening skills, though.
From 2005 onwards, efforts have been made to preserve Shanghainese. That’s included more media content, more study of the language, and even use of Shanghainese on some public transport.
One of the people helping pass the language on to today’s youth is Wang Yuanchao who, among other things, writes and records songs and nursery rhymes in Shanghainese for school children. I went to see him while he was recording a new song with about 30 primary school kids.
Wang believes that it’s important for local children to learn Shanghainese because it’s something that they won’t easily pick up later in life.
“I realized that fewer and fewer kids around me could speak Shanghainese,” he told me. “So I had a think about what I could do, and decided to record Shanghainese songs to give kids more opportunities in life to sing and act out Shanghainese.”
The end of my one-month introduction course came pretty quickly, and I can now say a few simple, everyday terms and also introduce myself in Shanghainese.
To be honest, one thing I’ve discovered on this journey is that Shanghainese is tough, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue with formal study, not least of all because Mandarin Chinese is more than enough in most Chinese cities. I will keep chipping away at it, though, and practice what I’ve learned whenever I get the chance.
If you’re in Shanghai and keen to learn Shanghainese, visit LTL's website. If you’re not in Shanghai, search for the uTalk app and get started with your own Shanghainese journey.