"The Chinese culture belongs not only to the Chinese but also to the whole world." - Hu Jintao
Did you know that Chinese is not a single language, but a family of different languages?
China has a landmass of approximately 9.5 million square miles. With a population of 1.4 billion people, it’s impossible to imagine that they would all speak the same type of Chinese. The Mandarin language is the most spoken language, and we tend to think that Mandarin our solution if we plan to travel to the East, but you’ll be amazed at all the different Chinese languages and the colourful story of Chinese culture.
The Republic of China’s linguistic landscape is an interesting melting pot of various languages and dialects.
With 13 official languages you’ll think that these are the major languages spoken in China and you are absolutely right. There are however over 300 different Chinese dialects and while your ability to converse and write in standard Chinese could get you around, you might not be able to freely socialise with all people in China.
If you really want to entrench yourself into certain social groups, you’ll have to learn their regional specific dialects.
If you are ready to learn about Chinese culture, plan to travel or want to conduct business dealings in a specific Chinese language, then this article is for you. We’ll tell you which dialects are mostly used and where you can discover its culture, country and unique tonal pronunciation.
A Brief History on The Chinese Language
Chinese is the oldest written language in the world. Its history dates back 6 000 years and exactly how its developed is a vibrant and contentious history. One thing the experts do know is that the Chinese variants all come from an ancient branch of languages called the sino-Tibetan language family.
Written Chinese Characters
Who doesn’t love the beautiful symbols of the Chinese written language? Each line contributes to spoken sound and together they create symbols, called characters. With over 4 000 written characters it can look like a mountain to try and understand or learn Chinese words, but luckily the linguists say that 2 000 - 3 000 characters will be enough to make reading, writing and comprehension in Chinese possible.
Chinese writing comes directly from Ancient Chinese and even though some speakers might not know a certain dialect they’ll be able to understand each other in written from. The written form of Chinese also have various subdivisions:
- Simplified Chinese: Taught to students of Mandarin Chinese, this is a simplified form of written Chinese. It has less strokes than traditional Chinese and even though it’s been around for centuries it only gained popularity in the 1950s.
- Traditional Chinese: Most of Chinese literature used traditional Chinese and this is popular in Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea and other parts of the world.
- Slang Chinese: Making use of phonetic characters, the Cantonese originated some slang characters to supplement traditional Chinese. They are directly related to the Cantonese dialect and people from Taiwan and China must learn them to recognise them.
The changes in the various dialects are not so much grammatical, but more related to pronunciation and vocabulary which might make it slightly easier to learn than languages like French and even English, that is once you can master the Chinese written language.
The Chinese sound system makes use of tones to indicate differences in meaning to certain words that would normally have the same spelling. To accommodate western society the Chinese created the pinyin system where western spelling was used to translate and pronounce Chinese words.
The Chinese government made a big effort to unite the People's Republic of China under one language and that was when Standard Chinese increased in popularity. Almost 70% of Chinese people understand Mandarin well enough, but it's important to note that the various dialects that people speak is very different to this official language from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet.
Let’s start to explore Chinese through its regional dialects. You’ll soon realise how spoken Chinese is Shanghai is very different to Hong Kong Cantonese.
Cantonese makes up a significant part of the Chinese history. It is around 1 000 years old and is now one of the most popular, official languages of China. As the name implies, Cantonese originated from Guangzhou and the Canton region and is therefore more popular in the Southern regions of China.
In Hong Kong they use Cantonese for law proceedings and official government business and linguists will tell you than Cantonese can easily be confused with Mandarin, but that it has more tones to give it a more fluid sound and its grammar is a bit more complex, but richer.
Written Cantonese makes use of traditional characters with a sprinkle of vernacular Chinese and if you are considering learning Cantonese, you’ll also discover that there are differences in the Hong Kong dialect, Guangzhou dialect and Macau dialect.
If you plan to do business in China, are looking for an interesting Chinese dialect to learn or plan to travel to these major cities of business then written and spoken Cantonese is a good Chinese language to consider.
With a population of over 25 Mil. people, Shanghai is the biggest city in China and possibly one of the biggest in the world. It is a symbol of China’s economic power and a hub of economical, scientific and cultural activity.
Standard mandarin is well understood throughout Shanghai, but if you are planning to win the favour with the locals to get a piece of the Shanghai success pie, we’d encourage you to learn Wu Chinese.
7-8% of the Chinese population speak Wu Chinese and an estimated 80 Mil. use it as a native language across Asia. It is however not one of the official languages, but it is certainly one that is popular and used frequently among the people of China.
Generally, Wu Chinese is not the first choice for most students to learn, but it’s important to understand the cultural landscape before choosing the Chinese language of your choice. Wu Chinese is actually the second biggest language after Mandarin in China, and it also has 14 different main varieties.
If you are looking for a Chinese language that will intrigue, challenge and motivate you, we’d encourage you to research Wu Chinese, it might just get you that international job you’ve always been dreaming of. If you are looking for more reason to learn Chinese dialects you can read our other article here.
If we’re talking numbers, Min Chinese is another interesting choice of Chinese dialect for students to learn. It is popular and with its origins in the south-east of mainland China you can expect to hear this type of Chinese in the Fujian Province and in parts of Taiwan, Hainan, Guangdong and Zhejiang.
Around 70 million people speak Min Chinese and regional varieties also come into play. Northern Min is spoken by around 10 million people and its cultural centre is in Fuzhou.
Southern varieties developed in and around Xiamen and there are those who claim that there are up to nine varieties of Min. This is a good option to learn if you want to converse with the 40 million speakers that are in China and Taiwan. There are also around 5 million speakers across the countries of Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Be sure you investigate Min Nan if you plan on travelling to Taiwan of the Jujian province, and if you are more adventurous to learn one of the less common ones you can investigate different varieties like Min Bei from the Naping region, Min Dong from the Fuzhou region, Min Zhong from Sanming prefecture or Pu-Xian Min that is spoken in Putian and Xianyou County.
One great benefit for students is the fact that Min uses the same characters as Mandarin. This will make it easier for those who understand standard Chinese to learn and with the help of an expert tutor you’ll also get to learn about the regional cultural nuances in these areas.
Ready to Further Explore Popular Regional Chinese Languages?
We've only discussed a couple of the modern languages that you can learn as part of exploring Chinese history and culture. For those experienced in Mandarin and already well on their way, there are hundreds of dialects of dialects to explore and a number of other languages you can explore, including:
The best way to learn a new language is through continued practice and application. Superprof has a range of friendly and knowledgeable tutors who can help you with your reading, writing or practicing your speaking of Mandarin and its various dialects.
Enjoy your discovery of Chinese Languages and try to speak and apply it as frequently as possible.
"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." – Confucius (Chinese Philosopher)
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