Capturing Endangered Tongues of Yunnan

After decades of Chinese central government policies that baldly aimed at replacing non-Han languages with Mandarin, or at best simply tolerated their existence, real money is apparently now being spent to document and preserve them in ways that meet international standards.

According to an article published at (临危语言), several linguists from the Yunnan Endangered Languages Audio Laboratory (云南临危语言有声语实验室) were sent to University of London for training, and related equipment has been imported and installed.  The lab now boasts 4 specialists and 20-plus researchers.

Yunnan’s most highly endangered languages have been identified, with 9 used by less than 500 native speakers.  For instance, Xian dǎo yǔ, the language of the A Chang people (阿昌族的仙岛语) has only 76 living speakers.
The laboratory is currently implementing basic steps for these endangered languages such as establishing audio databases and developing recording software. Unlike earlier homegrown efforts, these files aim to be consistent with international best practice, and include documentation in IPA, Hanyu Pinyin, literal translations in Mandarin and English, and free translations into both languages.

The laboratory is a project of the Endangered Languages Research Center at Yunnan’s Yuxi Normal University  (云南玉溪师范学院民族文化语社会发展研究所 临危语言研究所中心). A senior manager for the center, Professor Bai Bibo, said that considerable work has also been done to document and teach one of Yunnan’s living languages, Hani (哈尼语), spoken by over 700,000. A Hani language center has been established in Red River Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture (pictured: bright red, bordering on a dark green Vietnam) where the training program aims to cultivate professional linguists who can speak, read and write Hani, and document and translate the language. They have published several research papers, such as An Analysis of Hani Discourse (哈尼语话语分析).

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