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How to learn Shanghainese


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We want to start offering Shanghainese classes at our Shanghai School, and are looking for experiences from people who studied it previously. Whereas there seems to be an almost unlimited amount of Mandarin studying materials, there is very little around for Shanghaihua.


Any advice on how to best learn Shanghainese for people who already speak Mandarin? Anyone knows of any materials for Chinese people who want to study 上海话?


As a first step, our school director in Shanghai started to learn Shanghainese, he is blogging about the experience on http://www.livethelanguage.cn/category/learning-shanghainese/

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I tried and had a certain success, in that I could use it for simple things, and managed to impress those that I thrust it upon, but certainly not enough to have any in-depth or extended conversations.


There were many reasons for this:


1. Lack of good learning materials: Firstly there are very few material at all available on the market. If you search for out-of-print books, on Taobao for example, then the range of books expands substantially (from about 5 to perhaps 30-40), but many of these are completely useless for the serious learner. Most don't explain grammar, do not mention tones, and just have example sentences with usually the publishers own made-up atonal pinyin (nauseatingly cringeworthy, like I imagine the knee-how book to be - did that ever come out, by the way?), or pseudo-pronunciation using mandarin readings of chinese characters. In any case, useless for anyone who wants to be understood.


Having said that, there is a small number of decent books. By "decent" here, I just mean better than the crap which contitutes the majority, but still nowhere near as good as what is available for mandarin. Basically, if the book mentions tones and sandhi and has any explanation of grammar at all, then it is already at the better end of the scale.


2. As Shanghainese is customarily not written down, there is almost no opportunity to read it, other than in the few textbooks available. What's the point of learning to read something that's never written anyway? Well, as the argument goes for mandarin - it's much harder to reach an advanced level if you don't have the input from written materials, in terms of range of vocabulary and so on.


3. Lack of interest from native speakers. Shanghainese people will be very amused by you speaking their language - because it's a novelty. But that's essentially where it ends. Most Shanghainese people don't have any pride in their language. The younger generation would rather speak Mandarin, and the older generation are ashamed that they don't speak Mandarin as well as Shanghainese. Otherwise they would probably speak Mandarin too. Most people will think you're wasting your time learning Shanghainese. (They have a point though - putting interest aside, there is almost no practical use for it.)


4. Lack of awareness from native speakers. As has been discussed here many times before, native speakers are often unable to explain much about their own language. If you think about how frustrating the situation can be with mandarin, even though presumably most people have learnt it at school and should be aware of tones, sandhi, grammar and so on, very few people are able to effectively teach it. Now imagine how it is for Shanghainese. Noone has ever studied it at school. Noone has ever learned a systematic transliteration (pinyin) for it. Most speakers probably don't even know how many tones the language has. Ask anything technical about the language and you'll probably end up teaching them more than they teach you.


5. Lack of systemisation. Kind of similar to the above point - but since there is no standardised pinyin, it is very difficult to classify the sounds in one's mind. As is the case for regional mandarin speakers, different people have different pronunciations. At least with mandarin though, you know what the possible syllables are - if it ain't one of them, then it'll be the other, so you know what the person is trying to say, even if their pronunciation is not 100% standard. Not the case for Shanghainese. You hear a syllable that is slightly different to how you've heard it before - is this the same syllable with a different pronunciation, or is it a different syllable? Who knows...


6. Lack of uniformity amongst speakers. There is a large range in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary between speakers. This makes it difficult to get consistent answers about how to say things. Ask one person, and you'll get one answer. Ask another, and you'll get a different answer. Not unique to Shanghainese - a similar situation in mandarin. But at least Mandarin has an official standard fall back on when you're not sure. There is no standard in Shanghainese, so who do you choose to learn from? How do you know who is "more correct"?


7. Young native speakers often don't speak very well. If you're happy to language exchange or find a teacher over 50 years of age, this problem is circumventable. But if you like interacting with younger people (say, under 30), though many will be able to speak fluently about superficial things (like they would at home with their families), they'll get stuck for anything more technical. Most speakers would just revert to mandarin under such circumstances, but not very useful if your intention is to learn Shanghainese.


8. In my case, lack of time and priorities was also a problem. I was quite busy during my time in Shanghai, so I didn't have enough time to devote to seriously learning Shanghainese. But of course, that depends on your personal circumstances and priorities.


So, I think a Shanghainese class has potential, but it may be difficult to find a good teacher who understands the technicalities well enough to teach. I did attend a course in Shanghainese at Jiaotong University. The course was useless because the teacher had no concept of how to actually teach the language, rather than just making everybody chant a dialogue by rote.

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  • 3 months later...

The best way to learn Shanghainese for people who already speak Mandarin is to "become" Shanghainese. "Live The Language" as your school says.


I've managed to be able to understand quite a bit of the language through simple immersion. Speaking is another question, but being able to understand it comes quite naturally if you hear it all the time and are good enough in Mandarin.


One can amass a lot of Shanghainese vocabulary just through listening and picking up on words and noticing unique structures. Noticing is an important skill here!


To bring speaking ability up to speed though, I found that I needed a more systematic approach, so as not to be all out of tune just winging it with the tones. (And since as mentioned in an above post, most Shanghainese natives aren't even aware of what happens in their language until you point it out, at which point they get freaked out and say; "Glad it's my native language! Good luck!")


For this, there are a few good course books (for Chinese) and a large dictionary by 钱乃荣 that use the IPA with tone marks and sandhi so you can know how to pronounce things correctly in and out of sentences.


Most books come with audio CDs and you can get far just studying dialogues with accompanying audio and transcripts. There's a lot that can be done with that material. That's all I really need to lay a solid foundation in any language.


The rest is really "living the language" – especially important with Shanghainese, since it's not a written language. You have to get it from the natives.

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Thanks for the replies above and sorry for being so late in replying back, it has been a busy summer.


I fully agree on the immersion (live the language) approach for any language and particularly for Shanghainese. However, in addition to this we do want to provide a structured teaching environment that explains grammar etc.


I understand that there are few materials/websites/books out there and many of them are poor, plus very few actually skilled teachers for it available (though that is often similar in Mandarin) but does anyone have any suggestions for some book/website etc. that are good (or at least not horrible) or you at least found useful for you? It would be good to have something to start from.

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Anything by 钱乃荣.


《新上海人学说上海话》 is a good course book with dialogues arranged by topic and supplementary vocab and grammar points at the end of each unit. Each sentence is in Mandarin (characters), then Shanghainese (characters), and Shanghainese pinyin with tone marks showing complete phrasal tone sandhi. Comes with audio.


Pretty much the same deal with 《上海话900句》.


And of course 《上海话大词典》.


These are what I have used the most because they show both word and phrasal tone sandhi, which is the most important part of Shanghainese yet is neglected in most other material.


A lot can be done with these resources. I treated them like an Assimil course, if you're familiar with their passive and actives phases, with bidirectional translation paying particular attention to getting the tones right, and of course lots of listening repetition at slow and normal speeds to, again, hear the tones.


I got these, after all, to get a handle on the tonal system to improve speaking, because if you're coming with a strong Mandarin base, then vocab and grammar is really a sinch once you learn how to transfer the basic sounds between the two languages.

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