Sep 28, 2019

What are the Commonly Used Chinese Dialects?

By Ofer Tirosh | A Super Chineasian

This guest blog post comes from Ofer Tirosh, founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider that delivers quality translation services in more than 100 languages and has been rendering Chinese translation for more than 50,000 business customers worldwide.

Ever wanted to learn Chinese? Well, Chinese isn’t really a language. What people really mean is that they want to learn Mandarin. But do you know that Mandarin isn’t the only dialect in China? In fact, a huge percentage of Chinese people can’t even speak Mandarin.

Mandarin is one of the many, and I truly mean many dialects in China. Of course, this is true for all languages as they all regional variations and dialects. But China is home to numerous diverse ethnic groups, different collective societal histories, and many other factors that allowed for entirely different linguistic variations to uniquely evolve from another.

Nevertheless, with this article, not only will you learn more in regards to the rich diversity of the Chinese language but also form a deeper appreciation for Chinese culture and society.

Additionally, you’ll learn how having Chinese language skills can give you access to wider career opportunities all over the world in a variety of sectors and industries. For example, in the language services industry, Mandarin translators are in heavy demand. Check out this informative piece that lists out in-demand language trends in the field of translation.

The Chinese Dialect vs the Chinese Language: What’s the Difference?

To help you understand the complex differences between Chinese dialects, it would be good to help you have a firm picture on what actually is a dialect. Dialects are not like accents. For example, the Texan accent might be different from a New York accent but the language they’re speaking is still English.

Dialects are official variations of a language. For example, American English, British English, and Canadian English are their own dialects. The confusion here is that the variation between dialects is either subtle to very extreme and the term dialect often gets thrown around a lot and misused.

Since we’re in the context of Chinese dialects, the variation between Chinese dialects isn’t exactly modest in comparison to the modest differences between American English and British English. Sure, they speak in different accents and use certain vocabulary & phrases in a different way, but they can definitely still understand each other. When it comes to Chinese dialects, you’ll be exposed to a whole new level of linguistic diversity. You’ll be surprised to know that these dialects can be quite far off from each other. To the point that speakers from each dialect won’t be able to understand each other almost completely.

The Vastness of the Chinese Language Family

China is divided into 23 provinces and each has its own regional dialect. The variations between dialects are so pronounced due to China’s unique topographical features. Some regions are divided by ribbons of mountain ranges and mighty rivers. 

China also has a history that stretches back to more than 3,000 years. Thus it’s only expected that a region as large and old as China would develop such unique linguistic varieties. China has hundreds ethnic groups and populations living in the hinterland region and each have their own way of speaking. You can observe this phenomenon in your home country too wherever you are. Country folk speak in a different way compared to their fellow urbanites. This is especially true for cosmopolitan cities as city dwellers are more exposed to the dynamic globalized world.

How Many Chinese Dialects Are There?

Want a real definite answer? A lot. That is as accurate as anyone can say. Why the vague answer? Well, there are indeed a number of widely spoken dialects, but there are hundreds of recognized minority dialects.

Note the word recognized? There could be more unrecognized dialects tuck in the hidden corners of the mainland Chinese hinterlands that still need to be categorized. Nevertheless, here’s a list of the 8 most popular Chinese dialects;

1. Mandarin

Less widely known in the Western world as Putonghua, meaning ‘common speak’. When people normally ask if you speak Chinese, they usually mean Mandarin. If you’re curious as to how many people speak Mandarin, there are more than a billion speakers of Mandarin, making it the most widely spoken Chinese dialect and the most spoken language in the world.

It is the official language of China, meaning all forms of Chinese media employs Mandarin as the industry language. The citizens of Taiwan and Singapore also speak Mandarin but as you can expect, they use their own version of Mandarin.

2. Cantonese

Also known as the Yue dialect. Cantonese is spoken in the Canton region of southern China. It is the official dialect of Hong Kong and Macau. If you watch a lot of Hong Kong cinema such as films from Stephen Chow, a world-renowned Chinese director from Hong Kong, then you’re listening to Cantonese.

As to the linguistic characteristics of Cantonese vs Mandarin, to non-Chinese speakers and Chinese speakers of other dialects, it’s actually not hard to spot the noticeable difference between Mandarin and Cantonese. Cantonese not only uses an entirely different vocabulary but also it also has bouncy diction and rhythm compared to how Mandarin sounds.

3. Min

Spoken in the Fujian province and other provinces in Southeastern region. If you want to know what Chinese dialect is spoken in Taiwan, then it is the Min dialect. Naturally, Taiwan has its own version of the Min dialect called, unsurprisingly, Taiwanese or Taiwanese Hokkien.

4. Hakka

Also known as the Keija dialect. Similar to Min, Hakka is also widely spoken in the Southeastern region of China.

5. Gan

Gan is also another Southeastern dialect but its speakers are located further inland compared to its coastal Hakka and Min cousins.

6. Xiang

Spoken mainly in the Hunan province located in the central region of China.

7. Wu Chinese

Widely used in Shanghai and the coastal areas of central Eastern China.

Keep in mind that these dialects are subdivided into more minority dialects. You’re not alone if you’re dumbfounded by the sheer diversity of Chinese dialects. Even Chinese mainlanders themselves have difficulties understanding their regional cousins.

However, you probably find yourself scratching your head as to why some of these dialects are even considered dialects at all since they’re entirely different from each other. After all, dialects are variations of a common language.

But a lot of Chinese dialects are so far apart from each other that they ideally should be classified as languages. Take a look at this article to know more about the complex reasons why the Chinese government prefers the term dialects rather than languages

If They Speak Differently, What About the Chinese Writing System?

The Chinese do share the same writing system. There is simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. However, speakers of different dialects won’t exactly read it the same way.

For example, a video with simplified Chinese subtitles will be interpreted differently from Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers.

Also, some speakers also incorporate more traditional Chinese characters such as the Taiwanese speakers. Traditional Chinese characters incorporate more strokes, which is why simplified Chinese language was invented in the first place to enforce an easier and more standardized writing system.

With So Many Chinese Dialects, What If I Need to Ask for Chinese Translation Services?

So you have some documents that you need to get translated from English to Chinese and even from Chinese to English. For that, you need to request professional translation services from a professional translation agency. Usually, Mandarin is usual Chinese dialect that people choose.

Mandarin is the default choice for international entities from all industries that are requesting for Chinese translation and interpretation services as it is the national language of the Chinese government. It is also the de facto language of the Chinese academia and Chinese business scene.

Why Learn Chinese As Opposed to Other Languages?

People learn certain languages for a variety of reasons. Different strokes for different folks. Some do it to reconnect with their ethnic roots and the local populace, as a career asset, and for some, simply for the love of learning a new language and culture.

By learning Chinese, you can learn in greater detail and depth about the richness of Chinese history and literature. Granted, there are translations readily available for Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the works of Confucius but Chinese language speakers can take greater pride in themselves by taking the extra mile in learning traditional Chinese.

Even just by learning Mandarin, you can understand most of Chinese popular media. Ever heard of the action stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen? Their film careers turned them into household names all throughout the world. What better way to appreciate your favorite Chinese film stars than to actually watch their films without any subtitles.

As for career pathways that comes with learning Chinese, look forward to reading more about in the next section as to how Chinese language skills can give you access to lucrative career opportunities not only in China but in many countries as well, including your home country.

What Can You Do With Chinese Language Skills?

China’s position as a global economic superpower means that Chinese multinational corporations and emerging industries are not slowing down in increasing their presence in almost all corners of the globe.

Chinese entities need more multilingual international employees to help them become more competitive internationally. Even foreign multinational entities need more employees with Chinese language skills to help them gain access to the enormous Chinese market.

Thus, having Chinese language skills and being fluent even in just one major Chinese dialect, most likely Mandarin, will let you have access to vast career opportunities in both the public and private sector. But apart from the usual job market, there are even many freelance opportunities for Chinese language speakers.

You can employ your Chinese language skills in the language services industry as a freelance Chinese translator. You can even translate Chinese to English and vice versa real time as a Chinese interpreter.

But apart from the language services industry, many other industries are in need of professionals with Chinese language skills. Fields such as marketing where you can provide marketing translation services and even the IT, software, and gaming industry where you can provide Chinese app localization and translation services. 

The booming Chinese gaming and mobile app industry means there are many lucrative opportunities for people who are both passionate about the Chinese language and gaming. China is one of the largest mobile gaming app markets in the world and is also to Tencent, the largest gaming corporation in the world.

In the academic world, not only can you be a Chinese language teacher but you can be involved in the Chinese studies field as a researcher, analyst, and consultant for many public and private entities.

In the tourism, hospitality, and service industry, Chinese language skills are highly valued in many tourist destinations since Chinese tourists and travelers are among the most numerous in the world compared to tourists of other nationalities.

Which Chinese Dialect Should I Learn First? Final Takeaway

Now that you’re familiar with the mind-boggling linguistic diversity of mainland China, you’re probably wondering which dialect you should learn first. As a suitable choice for beginners, it’s recommended to start with standard Mandarin.

Many Chinese foreign language programs teach Mandarin as the industry default since it is after all, the standardized language of the country. Once you have a firm grasp of Mandarin, you can then use it as a stepping stone to learn other Chinese dialects when you have the opportunity.

Language skills undeniably serve as your unofficial passport to other countries and cultures. In fact, learning dialects are the next step into immersing yourself in an even greater depth in a foreign culture. You can definitely learn languages at school but dialects are a different story.

Yes, you can learn some of it in a traditional classroom setting. But since dialects are a specialized form of speaking, the only efficient and true way to learn it is to either travel to the region where the dialect is spoken, or to be surrounded by fellow dialect speakers if you have the chance.

Additionally, speaking regional and even local dialects allows you to connect more with areas far away from the metropolitan regions of China. You can find enjoyment by taking the off-beat path and exposing yourself to the other places in China that don’t speak standard Mandarin.

Ofer Tirosh

By Ofer Tirosh | A Super Chineasian

Ofer Tirosh is founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider that delivers quality translation services in more than 100 languages and has been rendering Chinese translation for more than 50,000 business customers worldwide.

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