It’s absolutely amazing. 5 years ago I thought all of China just spoke one language, just like the US just speaks English. As soon as I started learning Chinese I found there were two different “dialects”, Mandarin and Cantonese. The dialects are completely different and if you were to listen to them side by side, they are basically different languages. Right before I came to China some people had told me that China has a bunch of different dialects. I assumed that Chinese dialects were basically like American accents, like the differences between Texas, Missouri, Boston, and California accent, etc. It was not until I arrived in China that I found out that when they say “dialects” what they really mean is, in some cases, a completely different language that is unintelligible to people that are from different parts of the country. And there are hundreds of them. I recently became really interested in these different local dialects, called “方言” in Chinese. China is a huge country, with thirty-something provinces. Each city, each town in every province could have a completely different dialect that someone from another city within the province (let alone outside the province) would not be able to understand at all. As you can imagine, this has the capability of causing huge problems within a country, so the Chinese government decided to force the Chinese population to study “Mandarin”, which is the Beijing dialect (the capital city). So all Chinese students only speak Mandarin in school, but outside of school, with their friends and family, they will speak their local dialect. For some reason I find this really fascinating. For those whose dialect is completely different from Mandarin Chinese, they are basically bilingual, and in junior high all students begin learning English. The dialects up in the Northwestern part of China (some are not dialects at all but considered a different language), carry more of an Arabic type of sound, since it borders some Middle Eastern countries. Provinces by Hong Kong will speak a dialect that sounds more like Cantonese than Mandarin (people who speak Cantonese are known to speak really bad Mandarin, apparently the pronunciation is hard for them). The Northwestern area of China is known to have the most “standard” dialects, which sound most like Mandarin, and for the most part are intelligible. However, out of the hundreds of dialects in China most people can only understand two or three, maybe four. In a dorm room of six students, all may come from a different area of China, and if the government hadn’t required everybody study Mandarin, they would not be able to communicate with each other. Lately I’ve been asking some of my friends from different parts of China to let me hear their dialect. They will say a simple sentence, like “How are you?” and I will not understand it at all. I also often let my roommate listen (she’s from the southwestern part of China) and she also just stares blankly at my phone trying to figure out what the person just said.

During class one day my teacher likened China to the European Union. Every country has its own language, but for the purpose of communication and convenience, everyone also has one mutual language: English. China, the one country of China, is more like a bunch of smaller countries pulled together by one government, united by the common language of Mandarin. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this really cool.

Credit to my fellow CET student and friend Kalika, who just posted this great summary of the nature and common misconceptions of Chinese dialects. I think I’ve mentioned the regional dialect thing in prior posts, but nonetheless wanted to repost this so that everyone reading my blog could see! & get another person’s perspective!
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