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Chinese Language: Local Dialects and Mandarin

Local dialects and Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà – 普通话)

Chinese people speak thousands of mutually unintelligible dialects. In some areas (in the South and East), you can cross a hill or a river from one village to the next, and the inhabitants will not be able to understand each other. The differences between the spoken languages of the South and the North are greater than those between Italian and Spanish.

So how do such disparate tongues come to be grouped as a single language? The answer is in the written language. Although its use varies from place to place, the way Chinese is written is similar throughout the country.

Mandarin, which literally means ‘the common language’ is the lingua franca of China. It is the language two people from different places use when they meet. Mandarin is used in schools and in the workplace, anyone who has been to school can speak it. It is the language of newsreaders, television adverts, business, and all official government functions.

For your first trip to China, there is no point learning another Chinese language unless you plan to travel to remote border regions like Xinjiang and Tibet. Once you’ve learnt to recognise some characters, you’ll spot signs in government buildings which read ‘Please speak Mandarin’ (Qĭng jiăng Pǔtōnghuà – 请讲普通话)- part of the government’s drive to standardise China’s languages.

Historically, there were ‘local’ versions of Mandarin, and you still here people referring to ‘Shanghai Mandarin’ or ‘Guangdong Mandarin’, the accented Mandarin spoken by people in those regions.

The Mandarin of today is based on the local language of Beijing (Bĕijīnghuà – 北京话) – something Beijingers are very proud of.


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