The government has pushed Mandarin for decades to give a common means of communication in a country with huge linguistic diversity, but a large number of people, especially in rural areas, either speak it badly or not at all.
In areas with large numbers of ethnic minorities like Tibet and Xinjiang, Mandarin skills can be just as limited.
Seeking to address this and give everyone equal access to complain about pollution, the Environment Ministry is employing not only ethnic minority language speakers but also those who can communicate in Chinese dialects, which are often mutually incomprehensible with Mandarin.
The ministry said on its news website on Friday that its inspection teams had been recruiting those who speak languages including Tibetan and Kazakh, though not Manchu — the language of China’s last emperors which is now almost extinct.
Those with complaints or tips-offs about pollution can call operators who speak their language to “give the masses a feeling of closeness,” it said.
However, the two Korean speakers employed in the northeastern province of Jilin had yet to take a call in Korean despite being fully prepared, the ministry said.
A bigger issue has been with Chinese dialects, with the southern island province of Hainan and eastern province of Zhejiang particularly problematic because of the large number of linguistic variations, it said.
“Although the inspection teams have operators who can speak different minority languages and dialects, it’s hard to have full coverage,” the ministry said.
“If calls come in with a minority language they can’t speak, or if the dialect is rather strong, the operators will first suggesting asking a friend or family member who speaks Mandarin to help, or failing that to offer a report in writing.”
The government has repeatedly vowed to crack down on pollution, a huge cause of social discontent after years of rapid economic growth.