Lost in Translation: Family language policy in China

Posted in: Language and Educational Practices

Professor Xiao Lan Curdt-Christiansen, University of Bath

China is a country with a settled population of fifty-six different ethnic groups and their languages. In the dominant Han group, which is 91.5% of the total population, nearly 2000 Chinese language dialects or “regionalects” are spoken. In the other fifty-five ethnic minority groups, including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Zhuang, more than 290 different languages are spoken.

For over half a century, the government has promoted Putonghua, which literally means ‘common speech,’ as the national standard spoken Chinese across China. Putonghua has also been promoted in all schools nationwide, as it is the working language of government on all levels and the language used in radio and television. However, this has reduced the vitality of the regional varieties of Chinese. Over the past decades, a ‘Putonghua and dialect’ conflict happened because of this promotion of its dialect. In recent years, however, Putonghua has been observed penetrating into private, family lives.

Recently, researchers have examined ideologies and processes of language change and the shift from dialects to Putonghua. For instance, in my recent research1, for example, we found that the official use of language is a strong factor influencing parental decisions on which languages they want to develop and which languages they want to let go. In general, parents view dialects as having limited values in most speech and writing as they can only be used in local contexts, whereas Putonghua has much broader communicative usefulness and a much higher market value. In this regard, parents act as decision makers for their family’s language use. For instance, they either deliberately forbid their children to use dialects with the grandparent generation or they act unconsciously as translators between grandparents and children, translating dialects into Putonghua.

More recent research studied language practices in thirteen Chinese middle-class families.2 By analysing ordinary daily language exchanges between family members, such as dinner table talk, homework sessions, and play time, they found that grandparents as well as parents’ use of dialects is “lost in translation” or, in other words, language loss is talked into being.

1 Curdt-Christiansen, X.L & Wang, W. (2018). Family language planning in China: Parental involvement in children’s English and Chinese development. Language, Culture and Curriculum. 31(3), 235-254. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908318.2018.1504394
2 Wang, W. & Curdt-Christiansen, X.L. (2020). Lost in Translation: Parents as Medium Translators in Intergenerational Transmission. Current Issues in Language Planning. Online first publication.


Posted in: Language and Educational Practices


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