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Grasping the Complexities of the Chinese Language

Posted: 20th August 2015 08:24

For many, when they arrive in China for the first time, the complexities of the language and its many regional dialects prove a steep learning curve.  But, given time, those who want to learn Mandarin (Guānhuà) will find adopting their local variations a lot easier than first imagined.  The idea that China has regional dialects, as say the UK does, is somewhat of a fallacy.  Really, these dialects are so distinct that it would be more suitable to view them as distinct languages; as in Spain for example.  More often than not, locals from one town may misinterpret what those of another are saying. 

If it all sounds a little confusing now, that's because it is.  Despite being the national language,Guānhuà is not necessarily spoken by everyone, hence the reason why regional tongues are so important.  To appreciate the vast linguistic differences, it is best to travel, even a short distance, through China's towns and cities to talk to locals.  In fact, the renowned linguist Zhang Zhenxing has been quoted saying: “We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does”.  But, if you prepare a little in advance you will not be dumb-struck when you land and you’ll be able to dive into your language adventure straight away. 

Shanghai: Shànghǎihuà

With a population of over 23 million, Shanghai is the largest city in China.  As well as being a cultural and financial hub, Shanghai remains an important destination for shipments in and out of the country.  Despite the official language being Guānhuà, many locals speak a variant which is known as Shànghǎihuà.  Like many areas of China, the difference between the official language and the language that is actually spoken are near unintelligible. 

Guānhuàwas introduced to the region in the late 1940’s, but it is Shànghǎihuà that remains culturally significant to the area.  In spite of its popularity,Shànghǎihuà was actually banned in primary and secondary schools for a long period of time in the 1990’s and has resulted in a lot of young people being unable to speak the language.  However, recent movements have been made to revitalise the language and bring it back into education so as to conserve the dialectfor future generations. 

Even though the youth of Shanghai have primarily been brought up to speak Guānhuà, they have still picked up elements of Shànghǎihuà from their elders and see the use of the local tongue as a source of pride and honour.  For an idea of the kind of linguistic differences, ‘I love you’ in Guānhuàis is ‘Wo ai ni’, whereas it is ‘Wu ai nong’ in Shànghǎihuà.

Guangzhou: Guăngdōng huà

Similarly, in the old city of Guangzhou, rather than the standardised Guānhuà language, they speakGuăngdōng huà.  While the characters remain the same for both reading and writing, it is its differing pronunciation that is key.  Although Guānhuà is popular in Guangzhou, it is Guăngdōng huàthat you will hear being spoken in local stores, restaurants and other public serving businesses.  So prevalent is this variant that regional TV shows talk predominantly inGuăngdōng huà; thisfurther conveys the pride many locals take in their spoken identity.  Such pride is taken in speaking Guăngdōng huàthat foreigners who can speak even just a little, are welcomed more warmly than someone who cannot.  If you want to make your way around Guangzhou, try some of these phrases, ‘guang dong hua’ (‘hello’), ‘duo tse’ (‘thank you’), ‘zoi gin’ (‘bye-bye’) and ‘gei tsin’ (‘how much is…’). 

Tianjin: Jì–Lǔ Guānhuà

Although Jì–Lǔ Guānhuà is strongly related to Guānhuà, it still has enough individual peculiarities to be classed as a standalone dialect.  Despite the areas relative closeness to Beijing, Jì–Lǔ Guānhuàand Guānhuàsharply contrast each other.  The tone of the language dictates the difference between Tianjin and Beijing, with words coming across as deeper, with a lower, falling tone.  As this is the case, sometimes people get the impression that the people of Tianjin are aggressive in the way they speak, seeming sharp and impatient, but it is simply the way the language has developed over the decades.

However, on formal occasions such as business, locals will use standard Guānhuà.

Shenzhen: Guānhuà

Shenzhen is particularly rare in China, being that it is one of the only cities to use Guānhuà as its main language.  The population of Shenzhen is over 15 million and is one of the most modern cities in the world.  Through foreign investment, the area now has a thriving economy and has come a long way since the late 1970’s when it was nothing more than a small village.

The size and location of Shenzhen has led to the city becoming southern China’s financial and business centre, thus attracting numerous foreign nationals as well as local residents.  Remaining such a diverse area means that many of the city’s inhabitants are able to speak more than one language, with most young people fluent in English andGuānhuà.  During the 1980’s a steady influx of immigrants brought a shift in the language of the region, swapping the traditional Guăngdōng huàto the now more accepted Guānhuà.  Understanding Guānhuàis particularly advantageousabove any other Chinese dialects due to its bias in society and priority in the nation’s education system.  Shenzhen is a great starting point for Chinese newbie’s as you will not only pick up the standardised Chinese dialect, but won’t be overwhelmed immediately. 

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