Chinese Dialects

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It’s hard to convey the exact meaning of the dialects in China, but I will try.

China is similar to the former Soviet Union in many ways. Mandarin is to China what Russian, as far as I know, was to the Soviet Union. Languages in the Soviet Union, they share the same Cyrillic characters even though they have different languages. Most of them are Slavic and thus share similar grammar.

Chinese includes 7 dialects:

  • Mandarin
  • Cantonese(Guandong)
  • Wu Dialect(Shanghainese)
  • Min Dialect(Fujian)
  • Xiang Dialect(Hu’nan)
  • Gan Dialect(Jiangxi)
  • Kejia Dialect(Hakka Dialect).

Those speaking different dialects have difficulty in understanding each other (most of the time they may not even understand one another), since those dialects have different pronunciations and even grammar. However, they share the same characters and thus share part of the pronunciations.

Also each of these seven Dialects has its own sub-dialects; these sub-dialects share the same grammar, but have different accents. For example, many friends speaking Min Dialect told me that those speaking North Min Dialect cannot understand those speaking South Min Dialect at all.

Mandarin dialects cover more than 70% of the population of Chinese native speakers. In addition Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, one representative of the North Mandarin dialect. As the standard Chinese, it includes four dialects: North Mandarin like the Beijing dialect; Northwest Mandarin like the Xi’an sub-dialect; Southwest Mandarin like the Chengdu dialect; and Jianghuai Mandarin like the Yangzhou dialect. These dialects share the same grammar but have different tones and accents. Mandarin dialect speakers can understand each other exactly if they avoid the colloquial phrases and speak slower.

All the young people in China can speak standard Mandarin. Sometimes they cannot even speak their dialects any more. Therefore, If you want to learn Chinese, the best choice is Mandarin. Although some elders cannot speak Mandarin, they definitely can understand it. Furthermore, ethnic people in China, such as the Tibetan and Mongolian people, have their own languages and can speak Mandarin too.

Lastly, mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese are derived from the same standard and have only diverged at the historical turning point about 60 years ago.

PS: Mainland Mandarin(普通话) is the official Chinese of People’s Republic of China and Taiwanese(國語) is the official Chinese of Republic of China (Taiwan). If I call Taiwanese a dialect, it will a bit politically incorrect, but in fact they both are Mandarin(官话), which is known as Chinese(汉语/中文). Furthermore, Mandarin in Malaysia and Singapore is called 华语/華語.

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