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Archive for the 'Listening Skills' Category

The Truth About Spoken Chinese

Monday, November 5th, 2007

Most Mandarin is learned in class

Most people regard “Chinese” as being a single language, as did I while growing up in Canada. My first interest in learning Chinese began about 10 years ago as a result of my having many Chinese associates. I was very curious about the language they used to speak to each other, so I picked up my first Chinese textbook and tried to practice what I was learning with them. I soon found out that what I was studying and what they were speaking were two different languages. That was when I learned that the Chinese you hear out West can usually be classified into either Cantonese or Mandarin. At the time, the vast majority of what “Chinese speakers” spoke outside of China was Cantonese. This confused me as I now had to decide whether to learn the official language of China or learn what people on the street were actually speaking.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I first landed in Taiwan and began to seriously learn Chinese. Surely, living in a Chinese speaking country and constantly hearing what I was studying would greatly speed up the learning the process? I made a new discovery. While people could understand what I was saying and I could understand them when they were speaking to me, I couldn’t understand them when they were speaking to each other! (Deja vu!) After more research, I learned that what most people in China learn and speak at home isn’t Mandarin! Every province or region has its own “dialect” that people use to speak to each other, that are as different as English and French or Italian and German. In total there are about 50 distinct dialects across China and overseas Chinese communities, not counting regional variations between them.

This leads to an interesting situation for foreigners learning Chinese and wanting to communicate with Chinese people. A great analogy I heard is to imagine yourself walking into a party dressed up while everyone else is dressed casually. You might hear “Wow, you look great!” or “Nice outfit!” and while it feels great to be complimented, you can’t help feeling left out for being the only “non casual person.”

The prospects aren’t gloomy though. All media is broadcast in Mandarin as that is the official form. Similarly, for business transactions or formal occasions, you can expect Mandarin to be used. It is also the language used when traveling or when strangers meet, so it is definitely the language to learn. The only time local dialects are used is when locals speak with other locals from the same region. For most learners, I would recommend keeping your focus on the big picture (Mandarin), although you can win yourself some points by learning a few key phrases in the local dialect to show respect.

Chinese Dialects

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Chinese People Talking

One of the lessons I found out early on during my initial stint in Taiwan was that there was more than one form of Chinese, in fact a LOT more! I found it odd that when people spoke to me, I could make out what they were saying, and they seemed to understand what I was saying to them. However, when I tried to eavesdrop on people talking to each other, more times than not, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying!

We all know that Mandarin is the official language for China and Taiwan. However, each region within these places has their own unique dialect that can differ greatly from typical Mandarin. In Taiwan for example, most residents speak Minnanhua (also knows as Taiwanese) which is similar to the dialects spoken in the Fujian province of China. In fact, most regions in China have their own hua or local dialect. So when local residents speak to each other, that is usually the language they will use. It is what is used at home among family members as well.

Many generations ago, the Mandarins of Imperial China came up with an official language to unify the country and allow people from different regions to be able to communicate with each other. This is why Mandarin is called Putonghua (the common language) in Mainland China and Guoyu (the country language) in Taiwan. It is the language used to teach in school, on the news and to conduct business in (which makes it a good language to learn!)

Because for most people, Mandarin is formerly taught to them in school, it is also a sign of good education if you can speak proper Mandarin. So don’t be surprised if someone compliments your Chinese by saying “It’s very standard!” If you want to really fit in with the locals, learn a few words of the local dialect. If you think being able to speak a few words of Mandarin will impress them, imagine if you spoke a few words of the local language - that will be sure to floor them, as they know there are no books on the subject - the only way to learn it is to pick it up off the street, just like they had to.

As this course has shown, there are differences between pronunciation patterns from different regions in China. Learning about these dialects helped me better appreciate the differences in speech between different speakers. Just like it’s possible to identify where a person comes from by their English accent, it is also possible to do so by listening to a person’s Chinese.