Dictionaries to preserve ethnic Chinese languages

Dictionaries to preserve ethnic Chinese languages
Overseas students at Tibet University study the local language in the autonomous region.

Tian Desheng is worried about publishing the Tujia-Han dictionary he has worked on for a decade. The 81-year-old says that's because his ethnically Tujia 20-year-old grandson speaks Putonghua, English and German but not a word of Tujia. Once Tian called his grandson and asked him in Tujia to put his grandmother on the phone.

But his grandson required Tian to repeat the request in Putonghua because he couldn't understand his grandpa at all. The grandson's situation is typical, despite the fact the ethnicity is China's seventh largest with 8 million members.

Tian, who has spent his life studying and protecting his mother tongue, laments that only people around his age speak the language.

Younger generations in Hunan province's Xiangxi Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture, where Tian lives, mostly communicate in Putonghua.

"I'm afraid nobody will know Tujia after old people like me die," Tian says.

That's why he invested a chunk of his life in the dictionary.

The Tujia aren't the only Chinese ethnicity whose language faces extinction. Nearly all 55 non-Han groups' more than 130 languages face the same problem. (Ethnic Han account for more than 90 per cent of the country's people.)

The risks are most accelerated for groups with smaller populations.

But governments, scholars and educated ethnic people are working harder than ever to preserve these languages, mostly by creating some of their first dictionaries.

While Tibetans, Mongolians and Uygurs have their own scripts, most of China's ethnicities only have spoken forms, including groups with millions of members like the Miao and Tujia.

Their words are codified using the International Phonetic Alphabet for tones and Chinese pinyin for spellings.

The country has been compiling ethnic languages since the 1950s. But investments have increased in recent years, resulting in newfound enthusiasm among scholars and local governments.

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