Dialects in Chinese – Is Mandarin Dominant?

2012 September 14
by Alena

CHINESE DIALECTS

方言

Every person who decides to learn the Chinese language should be aware of the fact that there are many Chinese dialects in China. Since it was first spoken in 1122 BCE, Chinese has dramatically evolved from its primitive roots to a very complex language system that includes different intricacies and varieties, also known as 方言 (fang1yan2), regional dialects. Some people compare it with English, with its British, US, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and numerous other variants. Not that I completely disagree, but this is quite an oversimplification.

First of all, many of these dialects are completely different from one another. In fact, a person who speaks one Chinese dialect likely will not be able to communicate verbally with someone who speaks a different Chinese dialect.

Besides, it is hard to guess how many dialects exist right now in China. One of my Chinese friends told me that every province has its own language. The People’s Republic of China consists of twenty two provinces. He also mentioned that every dialect could significantly vary from area to another within the same province. Not to mention the non-Chinese languages spoken by the minorities, such as Tibetan, Mongolian and Miao.

However, all Chinese dialects and sub-dialects can be roughly classified into one of seven large groups: Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Hakka (Kejia), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantonese).

  • Mandarin or Pŭtōnghuà (普通话) is spoken by possibly more people than any other language: over 1 billion. It is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages in Singapore.
  • Wú (吴语) is spoken in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and in Shanghai and Hong Kong by about 77 million people. Major dialects of Wu include Shanghainese and Suzhou.
  • Yuè (粤语) or Cantonese (广东话) is spoken by about 66 million people in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and Hainan Island in China, and also in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and many other countries.
  • Gàn (赣语) is spoken by about 20.5 million people in Jiangxi province and in parts of Hubei, Anhui, Hunan and Fujian provinces.
  • Hakka (客家话) is spoken in south eastern China, parts of Taiwan and in the New Territories of Hong Kong. There are also significant communities of Hakka speakers in such countries as the USA, French Guiana, Mauritius and the UK.
  • Xiāng (湘语) or Hunanese is spoken by about 25 million people in China, mainly in Hunan province, and also in Sichuan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.
  • Mĭn () is spoken in  Fujian province, Guangdong province, southern Hainan Island, in the south of Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces, and also in Taiwan, Singapore and many other countries such as Brunei, Indonesia (Java and Bali), Malaysia (Peninsular) and Thailand.

The only Chinese language that we all can learn in colleges, language schools and institutes is Mandarin. But after reading this article, you can probably ask yourself, if learning mandarin the right thing to do? Maybe instead of Chinese we should learn Cantonese or, even worse, several dialects at once?

I know how it feels because I have been there, meaning I have lived in China. That’s why I am absolutely sure that if the reason that you learn Chinese is to communicate with as many people as possible or to conduct business, Mandarin is the only way to go! I spent a lot of time in different parts of China, and not even once I found a person who was not able to speak and understand Mandarin. It is the common spoken language for all Chinese, regardless of their dialect backgrounds. In fact, many younger Chinese do not speak dialects at all, and are conversant only in Mandarin. So please do not be disappointed, if you have been learning Mandarin for a quite long time, and cannot understand a word spoken by Chinese people. Thanks to dialects, no matter how brilliant you speak Mandarin, people in China can always find a way to confuse you 🙂

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