When people think of the Chinese language, they’re usually thinking of Mandarin. However, ‘Chinese’ is actually a term used to refer to the large family of Chinese dialects.
For some people, the question ‘which Chinese dialect to learn?’ is of great importance.
In this post I’m going to do a sort of ‘Chinese dialect comparison’ and talk about three different Chinese dialects and whether or not it’s a waste of time to learn a dialect besides Mandarin.
Due to the vast number of Chinese dialects being spoken around the country, there was a great need for a ‘standard’ language, in order to unify the people and make communication across regions easier.
It was decided that Mandarin would fulfill this purpose and in 1982 Mandarin became the only official language of China.
‘Standard’ Mandarin, is also called ‘Pǔtōnghuà’ (普通话), ‘common language’, or ‘Guóyǔ’ (国语), ‘national language’.
Today, staggeringly, over 70% of all Chinese speak Mandarin fluently, and it’s likely that number will only increase.
Mandarin is spoken predominantly in the Northern part of China, but its reach extends all over. This is shown in the dialect map of China below.
Mandarin is also spoken officially in Taiwan (with some subtle differences of course).
There are four tones in Mandarin – level, rising, falling and high rising. There is also a so-called ‘fifth tone’, also called the ‘neutral’ tone.
There are over 960 million speakers of Mandarin Chinese, making it the most spoken language in the world!
Next up in our Chinese dialect comparison is…
Cantonese is a Chinese dialect of the ‘Yue’ family. Cantonese is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin – in fact, the differences between these two dialects are so big that they can be considered separate languages (this is the case with many of the Chinese ‘dialects’).
Cantonese is spoken in the South of China, in Guangdong province, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau.
Amazingly, there are well over 60 million speakers of Cantonese – making it the 24th most spoken language in the world (by number of speakers).
Due to the migration of many Cantonese speakers from Guangdong province and Hong Kong, you’ll often hear Cantonese being spoken as the dominant language in the China towns of many of the world’s major cities.
Clearly, there are some compelling reasons for why you should learn Cantonese. Maybe your goal is to travel to Hong Kong? Or maybe you live near a China town and often hear people speaking Cantonese?
Whatever your reason, if you do learn Cantonese you are bound to impress the locals. Cantonese is often considered harder to learn than Mandarin due to it having six tones as opposed to the mere four in Mandarin.
Cantonese and Mandarin both use the same Chinese characters in writing. However, Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, still uses traditional characters.
I was lucky enough to spend some time in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and was amazed at how easy it was for me to use Mandarin to communicate.
The local people spoke Mandarin with a different accent to what you hear in northern cities, like Beijing, but it was still very much understandable.
The third and final Chinese dialect up for comparison is…
Shanghainese is the third and final language making up the ‘big three’ of Chinese dialects.
Shanghainese is a dialect of the ‘Wu’ family and is, as you probably guessed, spoken in and around the city of Shanghai.
There is no standard written form of Shanghainese. It is exclusively a spoken language and does not appear in writing.
By the way, don’t for one second think that your Mandarin won’t be understood in Shanghai.
While Shanghainese may be the everyday spoken language of Shanghai, the official language used in education, business, and media, is Mandarin. And because of this, the local people in Shanghai all speak and understand Mandarin.
Interestingly, there are five tones in Shanghainese.
I have been to Shanghai but I have never studied Shanghainese. So, if you’d like to find out more I suggest starting here.
As far as which Chinese dialect to learn – Mandarin still reigns supreme. However, cases can be made for learning the other two as well.
(If you want to learn Chinese to be able to communicate with as many people, in as many regions of China as possible, then definitely learn Mandarin)
However, if you’re solely interested in the South of China and Hong Kong/Macau then go for Cantonese!
Many people in Hong Kong do not speak Mandarin, or at least do not like to use or hear the Mandarin language (why? well, this is could be a topic of a whole new blog post but in short it’s to do with the Hong Kong-Mainland conflict and the existing mentality among Hong Kongers that mainland Chinese aren’t as sophisticated).
So, speaking Cantonese with locals is definitely the way to go.
The only real reason to learn Shanghainese is to be different and impress people. It’s not a language typically learned by foreigners and I’d imagine there aren’t many resources available for learning the language either. So, if you really want to learn it, I’d suggest first learning Mandarin.
Once you have a decent level in Mandarin, you can begin to delve into Shanghainese and take advantage of the Mandarin language resources that are available.