Tracking Shanghainese

The really great thing about doing anthropological research on a language's extinction/preservation process is that ethnographic data on language use is so easily accessible.

Just now, as I was opening up the Global Conversations page in the restaurant/teahouse I decided to spend my morning working in, I overheard a conversation taking place behind me. Seated at this table were two young 30-something year old mothers and their young sons who looked like they were around 7 or 8. The two mothers were friends and spoke to each other in Shanghainese. Meanwhile, when they spoke to their sons, they would switch to Mandarin. Then, the conversation got even more interesting to me when the mothers started testing their sons on English. 

Mother 1: How do you say 'How old are you?' in English? *spoken in Mandarin* 

Son 1: How old are you? *spoken in English* 

Mother 2: Not bad, not bad. *spoken in Shanghainese* 

The reason I'm sharing this very specific example of a short snippet of conversation I overheard just a few minutes ago is that it is entirely representative of so many of the conversations I hear almost everyday in Shanghai. This short snippet can actually tell us a lot - it is apparent that three different languages are used. English is the language children are learning, Mandarin is spoken to the younger generation, and Shanghainese is spoken amongst friends in their 30s. Of course, language use in Shanghai is much more nuanced than what this short snippet of conversation can tell us but this provides a very general idea of the kind of data I have been collecting in Shanghai over the past three months through fieldwork and oral histories. 

So why is tracking language use interesting?

At least to me, having grown up in a Shanghainese family in Toronto, thinking about language use is not limited to the discussion of language preservation but is also closely tied to the question of a Shanghainese cultural identity. Hence, I view language use in Shanghai as a lens through which the changing dynamics between the local Shanghainese and the increasing number of migrants in Shanghai from other parts of China can be observed.

As a child, I always maintained a certain amount of pride in being not Chinese, but Shanghainese. However, I never really understood what this Shanghainese identity was and how it has changed or is changing. So thinking about who speaks my language, the language I only ever used with 5 people in my life - my mother, father, and three grandparents - and therefore closely associate with my cultural heritage, has allowed my time in Shanghai this summer to be not only academically stimulating but also very personally rewarding. 

 

**The photo I attached is of my mother's ex-neighbor and her friends playing mahjong in their house, a popular pastime amongst elderly Shanghainese people. They spoke in Shanghainese.**