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Chinese Dialects: Do you need to know them?

Anonymous | SEPTEMBER 27, 2013

If you have been studying Chinese for a little while, you may have noticed that you have an easier time understanding some Chinese speakers more than others. Of course things like gender and alcohol consumption are factors, but so is the fact that people from China speak with lots of different accents and dialects – much like the different kinds of English spoken by Americans, Brits, Australians etc. So maybe you understand the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, but how do you navigate those other pesky dialects? Shanghainese? Beijing-er? Hunanese?

China speaks Mandarin. At any point in time, however, people will be slipping in and out of their local dialects. Think of it like sitting: you can lounge on a sofa watching TV or sit upright at the dining table. Speaking in your local dialect is like reclining on the sofa: subconscious and relaxed. Speaking Standard Mandarin in a formal setting is like dining. You sit upright, conscious and mindful of your posture and table manners (tones and grammar).

Beijing and the North are Special

Beijing residents pride themselves on living in the center for ‘proper Mandarin’. Beijing Chinese is seen as the benchmark for Mandarin. So Beijing Mandarin isn’t a proper dialect, just a heavily accented version of Standard Mandarin. The structure and vocabulary are basically the same, and the most important feature is the smooth, rounded pronunciation of each syllable.

You’ll also notice the Érhuàyīn. This is simply an exaggeration of the ‘er’ sound that appears at the end of many words. The phrase “nǐqùnǎr?” (where are you going?) might be lengthened at the end. It’s a playful way of stretching the sounds of the words. If you go North of Beijing, however you will simply hear standard Mandarin with a slight variation of accents.

When in Rome…

Hang around in Beijing or Shanghai’s tourist spots and you’ll notice that there are a range of accents and dialects. Chinese visitors switch from their regional accent to Standard Mandarin when talking with local residents. You’ll hear the difference when they converse with their tóngbāo 同胞  (buddies from their hometown):

“How much are the tomatoes?” they might ask (Standard Mandarin)

“These ones, 10 kuai a kilo” (Standard Mandarin with local accent)

“Damn, vegetables here are a rip-off” (speech cloaked in regional dialect).

You’ll hear Standard Mandarin with different accents (like British and American English) and then different dialects altogether.

For the Foreign Learner

As a foreigner, the chances of you being met with a heavy regional dialect are very slim. A Chinese will likely speak to you in the most standard Mandarin they can muster. As with any language there are different accents which can take a week or two to get used to. Where possible train your ear to listen to people from different provinces speak Standard Mandarin. Ultimately, it is called pǔtōnghuà or “common speech” (普通话)  for good reason – it’s standardized. Mandarin is Mandarin! English is still English, whether it’s spoken in Buckingham Palace or Miami. And so it is with Mandarin.

Chinese speakers worry far too much about American/British English. As a foreign student of Chinese it is best to avoid making too much of dialects. Substance over style is the order of the day. Mastering the language is the most important. Period. Having a good grasp of the language will equip you with the means to know what’s being said and pick up on nuances. As you flex your Mandarin you will see regional differences for the details and embellishments that they are. Consequently, they will cease to be a source of mystery and become a footnote in your linguistic adventures.

Practically speaking…

The bottom line for the Mandarin student is that you should just focus on the default language.

· Listen to CCTV (the national TV news network). The language used here is standard Mandarin that can be understood from the plains of Qinghai right over to the fishing ports of Fujian. If in doubt, ask: “Would this be used by the news anchor?”

· Improve your listening through practice. You will find that your ear becomes more attuned to the subtle variations of the language as you listen more. Watch videos on Baidu (the Chinese version of Youtube), listen to Chinese music and listen to authentic, every day speakers as much as possible. One great resource for this is our Chinese on the Street Series that interviews native speakers in different parts of China.

· Enjoy discovering regional dialects. Don’t worry about this too much. Instead, look forward to stumbling across regional dialects when you hear them in conversations and movies.