It is well known that Wenzhounese can be considered the most difficult language in the world and it is even called “a demon language” in some foreign films. In China, Wenzhounese is also famous for its abstruseness, and even the majority of the locals in Wenzhou do not dare to say that they are able to fathom Wenzhounese; however, this PhD from the United States publicly announced that he wants to ‘challenge’ Wenzhounese. Michael Opper, is an American PhD and lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts in Wenzhou-Kean University. Recently, he delivered a lecture on “A Study of Contemporary Chinese Language: Trends and Challenges” speaking in Mandarin Chinese at the Wuliao Downtown Bookstore. Numerous language enthusiasts from all over the city attended.
After 15 years of studying Chinese, he now has a good command of Mandarin. When he heard merchants in America speaking the Wenzhou dialect, it piqued his interest.
Dr. Opper has always been interested in languages. He had been learning Chinese for 15 years since his last year of high school. His undergraduate major was also Chinese. His research on contemporary Chinese language and local dialects originated from a teacher in his undergraduate years. He liked this teacher’s class very much because the teacher’s research was on contemporary Chinese language. Thus, he chose to study for a doctoral degree in this area.
Dr. Opper said that he first visited China in 2007. Since his return, he has been living and studying in China for nearly five years. He had also been to Kunming, Dali, and Chongqing. He has a deep connection with Wenzhou because of his earlier encounters with Wenzhounese. He grew up in New Jersey and later lived in Brooklyn, NY for several years. At that time, many overseas Chinese in Brooklyn were from Wenzhou. Many local snack bar owners were from Wenzhou as well. After hearing Wenzhounese, he developed a strong interest in the dialect which sounded strange.
Michael Opper, a lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts at Wenzhou-Kean University
Besides his interest in Wenzhounese, Dr. Opper has studied Chinese dialects including the Yi language and the Shanghai dialect. In his lecture, Dr. Opper, wearing casual clothes and glasses, referred to his doctoral thesis, “Bai Language in Dali, Yunnan”, to introduce the development of Bai language. He spent two years in Yunnan. He said his research of dialects mainly started from his study of phonology and sociology. Most of the dialects he studied have the phonetics and tonal systems; however, they have no writing system, lack transmitters, and they are at risk of extinction.
A popular lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts at Wenzhou-Kean University, Dr Opper plans to work with students to preserve Wenzhounese
In September 2018, Dr Opper came to Wenzhou. Liking the atmosphere of the Sino-American university, he became a lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts at Wenzhou-Kean University. Currently, he mainly teaches writing and linguistics related courses, such as sociolinguistics. Mentioning his current students, Dr Opper said: “Their English learning ability is better than many other Chinese university students. Everyone is very creative and has a variety of interests. They are really ideal students.”
The students in the College of Liberal Arts have many things to say about this American teacher. Liu, a freshman, is inspired by Dr Opper’s class. She said, “Every one of Dr Opper’s classes is meaningful, so you must pay attention all the time to absorb everything he teaches. In addition, he is very kind. If someone cannot answer questions in class, he still finds ways to encourage them.”
Dr Opper’s lectures
Dr Opper now lives in Xincheng (Lucheng District), and his favorite place to visit on the weekend is Qidu. He said, “It is because I like the natural ecology in Qidu, which makes me feel relaxed.” He has already decided to live in Wenzhou for a long time. So, to have a deeper understanding of Wenzhou and its culture in order to adapt to life in Wenzhou, and to satisfy his curiosity of Wenzhounese, he intends to deeply study Wenzhounese.
His research is in its initial stages. He plans to recruit students from the College of Liberal Arts to first do a sociolinguistic survey in order to understand the attitudes and thoughts of how the local people see Wenzhounese, including whether the local people prefer speaking in Mandarin or the Wenzhou dialect, and how often they use one or the other in different occasions. He plans to spend his summer vacation collecting the information about the phonological system of Wenzhounese and stories in the language.
From an interview in Wenzhou City News
The principal of the Wenzhou Nongovernmental Think-tank Promotion Association states that the use of the local Wenzhou dialect, one of the relatively weak Chinese regional dialects, is showing signs of decline day by day, especially among young people and teenagers. As a foreign scholar, Dr Opper came to Wenzhou alone to devote himself to the learning and protection of Wenzhounese. His spirit and love for language is admirable. The principal expressed his hope that Dr Opper can contribute his strength to protect Wenzhounese.
Dr. Michael Opper has a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan and is a lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts at Wenzhou-Kean University. Most of his research centers on phonological and sociolinguistic aspects of Sino-Tibetan languages. His academic interests include Chinese, Bai, and languages spoken by the Yi people. He has taught courses in ESL, linguistics, Chinese as a foreign language, and English writing.
Translated by Zhang Qiyu, Xie Chen