There are many reasons why China is a country that intrigues and inspires people from across the globe. An international traveller can enjoy the spectacular architecture like the great wall of China or the imperial palace in Beijing, while business people can benefit from commerce and entertainment in thriving cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Whether you plan to visit, trade with the Chinese or plan to settle there for work or study, a firm understanding of the Chinese languages will not only bring you closer to your goals, it will also enable you to do so with greater ease, understanding and respect for their culture and customs.
China is one of the most diverse countries when you consider their linguistic landscape. Language has always been an expression of culture and with over 56 ethnic groups and over 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese across the globe, it’s no surprise that the Chinese culture is filled with a spectrum of different languages and dialects.
Get ready to explore the Chinese Language tapestry, learn about their regional dialects and see why Wu Chinese form a vibrant stroke of colour for the people of Shanghai.
Chinese Language Varieties and Dialects
The Chinese language is not a singular language, but a language family that originated from the Sino-Tibetan language family. Linguists refer to it as Sinitic languages which means they are mostly separate languages and as mutually intelligible to non-speakers as French and English would be to non-native speakers.
Standard Mandarin Chinese, also known as Putonghua, is the main official language in and around mainland China. It is also the language that is understood by approximately 70% of the population and probably the language you will learn whenever you take classes to learn Chinese.
But the Chinese language landscape also has 6 other official languages and each group of languages also have different regional varieties and dialects that makes up an astounding total of over 300 living dialects across China.
So what makes all of these so different?
Each one is a language in their own right. The Chinese languages have their own phonological features that make them all sound different. With dialect specific vocabulary, grammatical differences and definitive pronunciation and tonal differences, it’s easy to understand how someone who speaks Cantonese might struggle to understand a Wu or Mandarin Chinese speaker.
Most Chinese writing, until recently, has utilised the traditional Chinese characters in their writing style which means that even though someone might not speak a language they might be able to decipher the words when reading it. Simplified Chinese writing is a more modern style that is generally taught to western students to make learning around the written words easier.
Language specialists continue to argue until today about the true origins of the Chinese language varieties, but one thing is certain, it’s one of the oldest documented languages and certainly interesting if you want to understand their culture and people.
Learn more about the Chinese languages in this article.
Mandarin (Northern half of China and the Southwest)
Also known as Modern Standard Chinese, Mandarin as it’s known originated from the Beijing dialects and has four different tones. The Chinese government invested heavily in creating the Pinyin system where Chinese sounds are westernised by using our alphabet and characters to write the sounds made by Chinese speakers.
Gan (Jiangxi and surrounding areas)
Spoken in the western areas of China, Hakka is the closest language variety to Gan when you consider phonetics. The Nanchang dialect is a popular one, but other dialects are divided into an additional eight groups including the Fuzhou, Ji’an, Yichun, Yingtan, Daye, Leiyang, Donkou and Huaining dialect.
Spoken by the Hunanese people in the Hunan province, northern Guangxi and neighbouring Guizhou and Hubei provinces. Greatly influenced by Mandarin, Xiang has 5 language subgroups called Chen-Xu, Yong-Quan, Lou-Shao, Hengzhou and Chang-Yi.
Min (mainly Fujian, Hainan and Taiwan)
Amoy (Xiamen) is the main language on the southern Min branch while Fuzhou dominates as main language in the northern Min branch. Min is also spoken in large parts of Guangdong. You can learn to speak Min Chinese if you plan to stay in the Fujian province or Taiwan as a huge amount of native speakers emigrated out of the country during World War I.
Yue or Cantonese (Guangdong, Eastern Guangxi, Hong Kong)
Standard Cantonese is the main representative of the Yue languages of Canton. If you plan to live or travel to Hong Kong or Macau, Cantonese is your best option to learn and it’s very popular across the Guangdong province. The Cantonese dialects sound quite different from other Chinese languages.
With many different dialects, Hakka of Meizhou in Guangdong is the most well-known. Hakka is also scattered across parts of southern China with large concentrations in a region covering southern Jiangxi and western Fujian.
The Significance of Wu Chinese
Wu Chinese is one of the top three spoken Chinese languages of mainland China and it is spoken by 7-8% of the population. What makes learning this language so exciting is the fact that most speakers are concentrated around Shanghai, which is why this local dialects is often referred to as Shanghainese.
Ranked as the best city in China, Shanghai is the most populous city and boasts with the greatest wealth when compared to other major cities in mainland China. It is also one the biggest cities in the world and its name translates to ‘on the sea’.
Mandarin is spoken and understood by most in the city, but Wu Chinese is the local language you’d want to learn to have casual conversations with people all over the city. Your understanding the Shanghainese dialect will not only give you an upper-hand to capitalise on what this city has on offer, you’ll also be able to socialise with locals, develop transferrable language skills and understand the regional population of China in greater detail.
Wu Chinese is also spoken and used in other regions like Macau, Yunnan and Suzhou and with 14 million speakers around the world it is certainly one of the more popular Chinese language options an English native speaker can learn.
Similar to other Chinese language varieties, knowing where you intend to stay or work will help you consider the language options you can learn. Mandarin Chinese is certainly the a great option for English speakers who are uncertain where exactly they will settle, but if your plan is to stay in Shanghai and you want to really understand their culture, Wu Chinese is the way to go.
The Characteristics of Wu Chinese
If you plan to visit or move to Shanghai, learning Wu Chinese should be on top of the Chinese varieties you consider. As member of the Han family, the Wu language group includes a couple of different dialects. The original 8 dialects has been gradually reduced to two dialects and the main difference to Mandarin is how the two tones in its spoken word are differentiated as soft, fluid, free and light.
Wu Chinese also makes use of some traditional Chinese writing characters and has voiced consonants like “b”, “d” and “g”.
Other differences in include the amount of syllables used, the grammar differences and a Wu vocabulary that makes the Wu language such a popular spoken language.
Learning Wu Chinese to Travel to Shanghai
Wu Chinese is not the most obvious choice when you consider the different Chinese varieties of languages and dialects, but it’s certainly the best option for those who plan to spend time in Shanghai. Learning a new language will challenge you in new ways and if you are interested in learning Wu Chinese you can learn in a variety of ways:
- Get a private Wu Chinese tutor
- Self-learning with online tutorials and free courses
- Safely study online with a Superprof tutor
- If you live in a big city you can try and track down a native speaker
- Reading books, online content and downloading Wu Chinese content
- Travelling to Shanghai for a language course or immersion
Some of these learning options can be challenging and pricey and we believe that the easiest way to learn different languages is by getting your own personal tutor. Wu Chinese is however not as common as Mandarin and for that reason it could be tricky to find a teacher who can teach you Wu.
Luckily, Superprof has a range of qualified and native speaking Chinese tutors to help you with the Chinese language you want to learn, including Wu Chinese and Mandarin. You can use them to supplement a current online language course, to practice your speaking frequently or they can do the translation of some well-known local phrases and terms.
Whichever Chinese language you choose to learn, whatever way you prefer to learn, take your pick; there will be a Superprof tutor a couple of clicks away to guide you through it.
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