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Survey: Nation faces linguistic challenge
China Daily  Updated: 2004-12-28 09:40

A national survey released yesterday indicates that nearly half of the Chinese population cannot communicate in the standard spoken language, putonghua.

One of the largest surveys of its kind showed 47 per cent of the nation cannot speak the national language.

Unbelievable, you say? The large number of people surveyed - 470,000 across the nation - testifies to the validity of the study. The findings are deeply worrying.

Given the country's vast geographic dimension and diversified culture, communication between different regions often has to surmount many linguistic obstacles. That is why we need a standard spoken language.

China boasts 56 ethnic groups and seven main Chinese dialects, with each further divided into several local accents. In some extreme cases, people in two bordering counties may not able to speak in mutually-understood terms.

This always leads to a pitiful loss of efficiency.

It is not acutely necessary to break the linguistic barrier in a society with stagnant economic activities or in a community where people do not depend on internal communication.

But as communications intensify, the price of everybody speaking Chinese but not being understood, becomes unaffordably high.

China has such a situation. Increased economic activities and cross-region labour mobility make it necessary to find a common language for people to communicate.

From a historical perspective, there had been a commonly used talking language dating back to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods more than 2,000 years ago, linguists point out.

It is not justified to readily apply history to reality. But past experiences can offer valuable clues to current situations.

Historians tell us we are now in a similar era that witnesses dynamic social exchanges with our ancestors. The common spoken language was used to link people from different regions and ethnic groups to satisfy increasing communicative needs.

We are now facing the same situation.

A standard, commonly used spoken language is also in the interests of the country as it helps promote national identity and cohesion amid a linguistic sea of highly distinct local accents.

China has promulgated the law on the use of a common language in 2001, requiring putonghua to be used in general in education, broadcasting and other public service sectors.

The country has engaged in special campaigns in the past decade, encouraging the use of the standard spoken language. The hard fact that still nearly a half of the population cannot speak putonghua demands more effort.

Promotion of putonghua should not necessarily mean stifling other spoken languages. We must respect dialects. This is the unswerving policy of the country.

Dialects carry culture.

Moreover, China has paid much attention to protecting languages of minority groups such as the Tibetan language. They are officially recognized and widely taught in local schools.

What we seek to achieve is to spread commonly used putonghua to better serve as a communication tool, while preserving the unique cultures born out of the country's diversified dialects.

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