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Chinese Dialects: Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Putonghua

Anonymous | OCTOBER 05, 2013

Last week I wrote about different dialects in China and why English speakers learning Chinese don’t need to worry so much because for the most part, Chinese natives will speak to you in standard Mandarin and reserve heavy accents and dialects for their fellow locals. Today, I will give you a real life example of what I like to call the “dialect dance”.

As you’ve probably noticed, China’s pretty huge. With 1.3 billion natives there’s bound to be diversity in how people talk with each other. At one end of the spectrum is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese. At the other end of the spectrum is a pure version of Mandarin that is designed to be understood by everybody – such as newsreaders are trained to deliver. Everyday life is lived somewhere in between these two extremes. Sometimes Chinese can encounter language barriers within their own country. But don’t despair! I have already explained here why China’s rich linguistic mix needn’t be a problem for the non-native. Let me illustrate an example:

Introducing Mr. Wang…

Let’s follow the experiences of Mr. Wang, who works for a Beijing plastics manufacturer. Mr. Wang grew up in Beijing and his parents are both from the city. When he’s sharing beers with his work buddies on a Thursday night he’s going to be speaking with a heavy local accent. If you’re a Chinese not from Beijing you might not understand what he’s saying.

Cut to the next morning and he’s on official duty receiving a delegation from Shanghai. Here you’ll hear a more clipped, much more proper Mandarin. When he’s introducing himself to an out-of-towner he’s going to go easy on the ‘er’ and keep his language within a reasonable range. There will be small but noticeable differences between the two speakers. The Shanghai native might use a few different words here and there, and have a different accent. This is where it’s comparable to American and British English, the differences between a Shanghainese speaking Mandarin and a Beijing person speaking Mandarin.

The next week Mr. Wang needs to attend a plastics conference in Shanghai. He gets in a taxi in Puxi and states his destination. From his accent alone the driver’s going to know instantly that his fare isn’t from around these parts. During the journey the driver might natter away on the phone to his friend in the local Shanghai dialect and Mr. Wang - if he’s listening in - is unlikely to understand what he’s saying. When they arrive at the destination the driver will switch back to Standard Mandarin as he coolly looks at the meter and announces the fare. He might even be looking to supplement his 4,000 RMB ($600 or thereabouts) –a-month salary by taking the out-of-towner with the obvious accent on the ‘scenic route.’

This is the experience in many cities throughout China. Yes, there are differences but no more than you would expect from a country this large. Where there is a common ground: in the train stations and schools, waiting rooms and offices people speak as one. Anywhere you might see red banners with slogans and advertisements – people there are probably bustling through their day using Mandarin. A telephone call home presents the opportunity for Mr. Wu from Fujian to momentarily slip into the candid language of their youth. “Yeah, I’m in the doctor’s waiting room, as usual no decent magazines to read.” Upon entering the consulting room he will revert to standard Mandarin to describe his symptoms (excluding the small possibility that the doctor or nurse harks from the same region as them). It is more remarkable that there is a common language to unite so many people. Esperanto was created to be a universal language and has around one million. Mandarin has over one billion.

I’ve been seated at the dinner table with three friends all calling home on their cell phones. My local Beijing friend and I were oblivious as to what any of our fellow diners were saying. We looked at each other dumbfounded as if to say “What are they going on about? Your guess is as good as mine…”

Hong Kong is the Exception

The following month Mr. Wang needs to go to Hong Kong on business (as a New Yorker might visit LA or Texas on business). This is where problems do present themselves. Street signs are in traditional Chinese and English is everywhere. Cantonese is the official language. In the same way that Mr. Wang can’t get what the taxi driver in Shanghai was saying, the conversation of the local Hong Kongers is also unclear – it sounds vaguely familiar but still sounds like a foreign language. The switch to Standard Mandarin is not as easy here as it was in Shanghai. Out and about he asks for directions in Mandarin and for the most part can make himself understood. When he has a business meeting Mr. Wang speaks his mind in Mandarin but wonders whether his partners got every word. Upon returning to his buddies in Beijing, they ask: “How was the trip down to Hong Kong?” “Man, I’ve got to get to my English up”

What does all this mean for you, the English speaking Chinese learner? Well, it means you have more insight into the colorful language of Mandarin and all it’s nuances. You don’t need to worry so much about understanding all these dialects, just take comfort in knowing that they are there and now you can recognize them for what they are: a brilliant reminder of the diversity of the people of China, all united under a common nation and common language.