The Elderly

note: Sinoglot readers rock. Seriously. You guys have consistently provided good discussion, which is what we talked about wanting, what seems like ages ago, when we decided to put this site together. We’ve all been a bit busy these days so the posting has slowed down. To remedy that, I have a few quick posts I’m going to throw up here in hopes of getting some more discussion going. This is the first. Thanks for kicking ass.

I’ve written elsewhere about trying to talk to the elerly in China. On a trip to Henan province last year i was somewhat surprised by the fact that I could actually understand people and communicate with putonghua. I thought that this was a strictly southern phenomena, being unable to talk to anyone over 50, but today it seems to have crept further north than I’d otherwise thought.

Today I was talking to a friend of mine from northern Jiangsu province about dialects and communication. She was saying that her parents, not yet 50 years of age, cannot speak standard Mandarin. I figured it was not a big problem since it was still beifang-hua, so to test I had her run through the usual phrases I make everyone say. Not terribly surprisingly, it didn’t sound much like Mandarin. It was clearly a northern dialect but one that I’d have a hard time to understand in the context of a real conversation. Not yet 50.

There’s a book I read about a year ago about language death. In it, the author states that the biggest reason to care about language death is that we lose a worldview when we lose a language. Maybe. But a more interesting thing to me is not so much about losing a way of viewing the world held by 20k people, but by the collected wisdom of an entire populous country’s worth of old people being largely inaccessible. Of course, that’s not really true, since their children and grand children can understand well enough, but from the outsider anthropologist’s point of view, those people are just not available. Most young people don’t much care what their grandparents have to say, in any country. So the people who could communicate don’t really care to.

Of course, the wisdom of “cold water makes you sick” probably isn’t so important as to lose any sleep over. I still think it’s an interesting situation.

So here’s what I’d like you to do. If you speak Chinese and live in China, go outside, find the oldest person in your neighbourhood, and try to have a conversation. How’s the weather, what’d you do before you retired, would you lie a nice cold glass of water. Simple stuff. Then report back here. Give a percentage estimate of how much of the conversation was mostly effortless. Also tell us where the conversation happened, geographically. I wonder if we couldn’t draw an elderly comprehension line on the map.

Get thee to a mah-jonggery!

20 responses to “The Elderly”

  1. Nicki says:

    Absolutely. Nothing. That’s how much I can understand them/they can understand me. Ok, technically I didn’t just run out the door and try this, but having lived here for 6.5 years I’ve had a bit of experience with it. Yeah. I live in Hainan. Hainanhua is totally incomprehensible to most of my Mainland Chinese friends, too, for what it’s worth. I did try a similar conversation a few weeks ago when a friend told me the street she lived on had no house numbers, just get in the general area and ask where the foreigner lives. I asked 4 people before I found one who could speak Mandarin and direct me. My friend forgot that she can speak rudimentary Hainanhua and I cannot. And yeah, the first 4 people I talked to were 50+, the Mandarin speaker was probably about 40.

  2. Jean says:

    “On a trip to Henan province last year i was somewhat surprised by the fact that I could actually understand people and communicate with putonghua.” Should be “couldn’t”, no ?

    In Beijing I can manage. In rural Zhejiang, not a chance.

    You make two categories: children and strangers. Do not forget a third one, coming like strangers but often supposed to behave like children: the daughter-in-law/son-in-law. Very often, they won’t speak the local language and can not really communicate with the dialect speaking older family.

  3. Tim says:

    Something I’ve noticed is that the difficulty of understanding certainly increases once you hit putonghua variant dialects, that is to say, if you try to talk to a Wu speaker, they respond in accented but semi-standard putonghua, but if you go to Nanjing for example, they come back with full on dialect because their dialect “is” putonghua. It still gives me quite a lot of trouble.

  4. Kellen says:

    Rural Zhejiang. Ugh. There’s an often modified saying that goes 天不怕,地不怕,就怕**人说鬼话。Wenzhou is usually the missing word but it could be any Wu speaker really.

  5. Of course, the wisdom of “cold water makes you sick” probably isn’t so important as to lose any sleep over.

    Research at Cardiff University showed that it really can. There’s some info about it here, but my google-fu isn’t good enough to find any links to the paper.

    Here in Xiamen I find that most people over 50 can speak putonghua, but with a very strong Minnan accent that I had a lot of trouble with until I worked out what phonetic substitutions were in play.

  6. Bathrobe says:

    The linked article is about the common cold.

  7. The linked article is about the common cold.

    Yes, Chinese elders traditionally believe that you can get a cold from being cold. This extends to college students in northeast China carrying little cushions everywhere so that when they sit down, their butts don’t ever touch anything cold; and mothers of newborns staying in bed for several days after giving birth without washing because of the possibility of touching water that is not warm. Kellen mentioned that tidbit as an example of folk wisdom that might get lost in language death. I linked to the article to show an example of how science has found something that supports that folkloric wisdom. If you scroll down on the page, you will see a research study mentioned in which a significant portion of participants soaked their feet in cold water and subsequently contracted the common cold.

    In less than 90 years, it is extremely likely that 90% of the world’s nearly 7000 languages will die. While the example of getting the common cold from touching cold things is not something that will die along with them (being part of the collected wisdom of Mandarin, a non-dying language), many similar and perhaps more valuable things will be lost with these dying languages.

    It’s one thing for linguists to go off and grab the grammar and basic vocabulary of a dying language just before it disappears. It’s another thing entirely to use that language to extract a lifetime of knowledge from elder speakers of that language.

    A simple example of why this is a regrettable thing is that elders may know of plants with certain medicinal properties that are indigenous to their region. When the elders (who can only speak their dying language) die, that knowledge gets lost. Science doesn’t even get a chance at knowing that there are such plants with medicinal properties, and so there is no hope to even experiment on those plants to see why they have those properties. But that is only a small and obvious example. Innumerable points of view and reasons for doing things in certain ways are lost.

    As I work on translating Manchu, I am always faced with this loss. Although Manchu is a written language with a sizable amount of material available, I am constantly facing turns of phrase that are not quite transparent. Why do they word something that strange way? Is it some kind of idiom? Slang? An allusion to something that any literate Manchu person 200 years ago would have understood? Although there are a few native speakers left, none of them are literate, so there is no one left to ask.

    Language is the deepest and richest part of a culture. When a language is lost, then the culture gets reduced to pieces of pottery in a museum display. We can piece them together in different ways, and develop theories for how the artifacts were used, but we’ll never really know.

  8. Katie says:

    After a year on the southern edge of Dongbei, I still have a hard time understanding many of the older people I talk to (over 50? not too good at guessing ages)–but if they are patient enough, I can get the gist of what they’re saying eventually, and if I speak to them regularly enough, it gets easier over time. Don’t know how useful the data point is, though, since I’m also guessing some significant number of the people here aren’t native to this area. (My apartment complex was a fishing village at some point in the last 10 years.)

    For whatever it’s worth, I found I could communicate with my friend’s mother from Heilongjiang (probably in her upper 50’s) but had a terrible time communicating with another friend’s father from Shaanxi (probably older). In theory he was speaking Mandarin to me but I never managed to figure it out.

    I can understand my 79-year-old inlaws who grew up in Shanghai much better than I can understand most of the older people around here, but they both spent a significant portion of their working years in the north, so of course they had to learn Mandarin. My impression was that both of them studied it when they were growing up, but I would have to ask to be sure.

  9. Bathrobe says:

    @ Randy on Manchu

    Would a knowledge of Mongolian or possibly other languages up there be of any help?

  10. @Bathrobe: A deep knowledge might help a little bit. But I suspect only a little bit because neighboring cultures tend to do and say things in different ways just to be different from each other. Those differences are points of pride to members of the same culture and things that can be looked down upon for members of different cultures.

    (Also, Mongolian is a bit harder than Manchu from what I’ve been able to tell.)

  11. Bathrobe says:

    neighboring cultures tend to do and say things in different ways just to be different from each other

    I’m a little sceptical of this. It seems to me that neighbouring cultures are likely to emphasise their differences in superficial or symbolic matters, but the influences can still be pervasive. To take a familiar example, non-Americans may go out of their way to avoid so-called “Americanisms”, but that hasn’t prevented American English from exerting a profound influence on all aspects of English around the world. People just tend to concentrate on the conspicuous bits when they resist. It’s also well known that even unrelated languages will often form regional Sprachbunds (the Balkans are the most quoted example) of shared grammatical and other features.

    That doesn’t, of course, answer the question whether Mongolian had an influence on Manchu. There was obviously some kind of interaction between the two since Mongols lived in the northeast and had constant interaction with the Manchus before the conquest, Mongols were the second most important of the banner peoples, the Manchus encouraged intermarriage in the imperial house after the conquest, Mongolian was apparently a lingua franca of sorts in the north, and last but not least, the Manchus borrowed their alphabet from the Mongols. So I would guess that there was influence, but I would be foolhardy in the extreme to draw inferences about specific linguistic influence without knowing the two languages, which I don’t. And it obviously doesn’t mean that knowing Mongolian would help understand Manchu texts! Basically I was just curious.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    I guess I should be posting this over at the Manchu section. It’s off-topic here.

  13. Randy Alexander says:

    Not off-topic at all! We talk about all languages in China here. :)

  14. The cold water makes you sick has always been about drinking cold water. Many, many cultures have had prohibitions about drinking cold water or cold liquids due to germs. It’s why the different cultures have favored alcohol (a treated liquid) or hot water (kills the germs.) And that made sense and still makes sense in lots of places where the water isn’t good and there’s concerns about safety. Chinese culture obviously expands all folklore like this (some of which had a good rational basis) into an entire system of hots and colds, much of which has dubious value at best. But let’s not kid ourselves, clean cold water doesn’t give you colds. That article has nothing to do with some kid in america getting sick from drinking a bottle of Perrier.

    Back to old people. A lot of those old people understand mandarin when they have to. When there’s someone yelling at them, police, politician, tv show they want to watch (which somehow is without subtitles) and they want to understand, a lot of them show a remarkable ability so suddenly “understand” mandarin. If some old person doesn’t seem to understand you, and maybe shoos you off, try bringing some native mandarin speaker (assuming you aren’t) and have them yell their questions at them. I think you might be surprised that they not only can “understand” more, but can even say a bit more mandarin in response when they need to save face or can speak to someone who they feel they are closer to.

  15. Bathrobe says:

    I think it is also pretty well known in the West that if you let kids run around in the rain there’s a good chance they’ll come down with a cold. But colds are not necessarily caused by drinking cold water.

    The wilful inability of oldies to understand Mandarin is rather interesting. In the case of Hainan, I really don’t think this is feigned. The traditional isolation of Hainan (despite being part of Guangdong province for yonks, not even Cantonese is widely understood there) and the total differentness of the local Hainanese dialect (which appears to be fairly unintelligible even to Minnan speakers, to which it is most closely related) suggest that these old people aren’t putting it on.

  16. “But colds are not necessarily caused by drinking cold water.”

    How about, there is zero scientific or even credible anecdotal evidence that drinking cold water has ever caused anyone to ever have a cold.

    Standing outside in abnormal weather conditions (cold or heat) for extended periods of time without taking proper precautions causes lots of people, young, old and other, to often feel worse than prior. This doesn’t seem to be in dispute.

    I’m not saying people in Hainan and other places are all lying. But I’ve seen many a magical time when all of a sudden, magic seems to happen when the going gets tough.

    In Taiwan, you’ll hear every line in the book about people’s fluency in Taiwanese. The “I don’t speak” or “I don’t know any Taiwanese” that many young people (and others give) can often be followed up with a series of questions, (can you buy food at a market when speaking Taiwanese, can you watch tv, can you speak these sentences, can you understand these sentences, oh so your vocabulary is likely over 5,000 words and phrases in Taiwanese, etc.) Now it’s true that you can find people with virtually zero speaking and listening ability in Taiwanese, but that’s the exception.

  17. Wolf says:

    I live in Chengdu, and here the locals, even young ones rarely ever speak standard Mandarin when I speak Mandarin to them. I’ve travelled around China a bit, and I’ve not experienced this before in any other province. It irks me that the locals expect outsiders to understand Sichuanese. Yes it’s not that hard to understand Sichuanese if given time, but a lot of non Sichuanese really have a problem with it too. I heard one non-local yelling at a waitress that he was sick and tired of not being spoken to in Mandarin! Percentage wise I think the chances of locals speaking passable Mandarin are 50% under 30 and minus 10% for every 10 years after that. I really think this is the unMandarin capital of China, and I’m a Cantonese speaker by birth so I’ve heard my bad share of Mandarin.

  18. Kellen says:

    Is there a suggestion in there that Cantonese is bad mandarin?

    I think the important part here is that the can be understood, if with some effort. That’s not always the case in the south.

  19. Wolf says:


    I just meant Cantonese speakers are renowned for their poor Mandarin skills throughout China. As a Cantonese person, I find it amusing and slightly embarassing. But at least they try when you are in Guangdong. Here in Sichuan, they don’t even bother.

    I was in Shandong once meeting the parents of a friend who’s parents were relatively young, but I swear to god, I could not understand a word of what they were saying. So I think the north/south dialect mandarin intelligibility debate doesn’t always apply.

  20. Kellen says:

    Actually I think in this case it still applies. Sichuan is geographically in the South, but linguistically in the North, being a dialect of 北方话. Cantonese speakers, coming from a different and thus mutually unintelligible language, have to make the effort. I’d say it’s as it a Mexican and a Venetian both went to Cordoba. The Mexican may think “well it’s Spanish so I’ll just speak Spanish (as I know it)” while the Venetian would realise that speaking their own language/dialect/whatever wouldn’t work, and they’d put in the extra effort. I’ve seen Americans do this in Scotland and come off as real dicks.

    I agree with you, though, in case that’s not clear.

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