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Mind your language

2012-02-24 08:39 Global Times     Web Editor: Xu Rui comment
Wu Wei inputs text messages using the Shanghai Dialect Input Method. [Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT]

Wu Wei inputs text messages using the Shanghai Dialect Input Method. [Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT]

"Nong hao" and "xia xia nong" may be the only Shanghai dialect phrases recognizable to most expats. But it appears the existence and survival of this oral heritage is not even guaranteed among local Shanghainese people.

This Tuesday (February 21) marked UNESCO's International Mother Language Day, an annual event since 2000, and which aims to raise awareness of "intangible linguistic and cultural diversity." The dilemma for Shanghainese is evident in the fact that more and more children here speak only Putonghua and many do not even understand the local dialect.

Wu Wei, born in the early 1980s is a native-born Shanghainese who has launched a piece of mobile phone software called the "Shanghai Dialect Input Method."

This features examples of Shanghai dialect vocabulary amounting to 50,000 entries. Since the software was released online for free downloading last Friday, it has been downloaded more than 16,600 times.

The brink of extinction

Barely a couple of weeks ago before announcing the news of the software on his Weibo account, Wu was just another regular guy. But the unexpected popularity of this new software has pushed this independent developer into the spotlight.

"Three years ago I became determined to digitalize the Shanghai dialect. The whole process is arduous, but if no one undertakes this job, the dialect will disappear in the near future," Wu told the Global Times.

Wu got his bachelor' and master's degree in computing at Shanghai University and Tongji University, focusing on the fields of artificial intelligence and natural language processing, which is also very closely related to his current work.

Early in 2008, the appearance of another computer-applied Shanghai dialect input method inspired and encouraged Wu to develop a similar software for mobile phones. "I find many Shanghainese would like to input Shanghai dialect when sending short messages, but they can't so they just use the Chinese word which shares a similar pronunciation. In fact, much of the Shanghai dialect has particular, corresponding words."

Wu began to teach himself the Shanghai dialect systematically with the use of books such as Shanghaihua Dictionary and Shanghai Dialect Dictionary. After a year of language learning, he started to write codes for the software. "The job took up most of my spare time, and for the past two years my parents would always find me sitting at the computer once I got home from my day job," he said. "Writing the codes, I encountered many setbacks and I almost gave up at times."

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