Chinese Dialects

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.

2 Responses to “Chinese Dialects”

  1. But is Taiwanese or Fujianese or whatever you want to call it really a “dialect”? Is cantonese a dialect? Or are they in fact separate languages? Perhaps they are termed “dialects” rather than “languages” for political purposes. Of course they do share common features of syntax (as do French, Spanish and English, for example) but they are by and large mutually unintelligible.

  2. This is a point of contention among many. For me, a dialect is a variant of an existing language. So if someone speaks to me with a different dialect of English, I should still be able to understand them, albeit with some difficulty. However, as you said most Chinese “dialects” are quite distinct from each other, which leads to the controversy of whether they should be called “dialects.” I have also heard Chinese being regarded as a family of languages. Part of the reason might be political as you said to keep the Han Chinese race unified.

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