One thing that eluded me until I studied abroad in China and started my intermediate Chinese studies was the countless number of dialects. What many Chinese teachers neglect to tell their first-year students is the fact that Mandarin itself, or the concept of a standardized language, is called“国语”(In Pinyin: guó yǔ). Directly translated it means “country language.” This idea dates back to the early 1900s, but was only created and implemented in the mid-20th century, but I’ll spare you all a long history lesson. What I’m trying to get at here is that every region of China has its own unique, and for the most part indistinguishable dialects, but they’re essentially entirely different languages. For example, the city my study abroad program is in has its own dialect, and lucky for me, it’s very similar to Mandarin. Sometimes, dialects vary from province to province, or even city to city, which can make the task of communicating quite difficult. Of course everyone speaks Mandarin, but for many Chinese people the first thing they learn is their dialect, and use the way they speak their dialect to speak Mandarin. This is mostly why you get so many variations in pronunciation among the Chinese. I asked almost all of my teachers if their grandparents could speak Mandarin, and they mostly told me they only spoke their dialect (I even had one teacher whose grandma spoke French!). From what I observed and heard, the elderly mostly speak their dialects, unless you’re in an area near Beijing.
To Americans and other outsiders looking in on this phenomenon, it seems so foreign and daunting to fully grasp. The way I like to think of it is that the Chinese have retained their languages and culture for almost four thousand years, and the way their dialects work is very similar to how the Native American tribes were. Each tribe had its own distinct language, and whenever I think of dialects I just think of it as the same thing, but the Chinese were never uprooted like the Native Americans were.
Just thinking about what life would have been like before Mandarin is exhausting! I can barely understand people talking amongst each other at the airport, let alone somewhere where the people don’t speak much Mandarin. There is one failsafe though: if you don’t understand what the people around you are saying, write out what you want to say. Although different dialects use different characters than Mandarin for certain words, if you write things out they’ll understand your meaning.
I know I barely scratched the surface of this topic, but I hope you find it as interesting as I do! It’s pretty much impossible to describe the differences in dialects, so if you’d like to hear the differences, check out this video of Frozen’s “Let it Go” sung in Chinese dialects, which should give a general idea of how the sounds differ, but there’s always some words that sound similar. A random goal of mine is to learn Cantonese, a dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the surrounding areas. Alright, until next time! Stay wonderful!