How Many Dialects of Chinese Are There? An Exploration of Speaking Chinese

How Many Dialects of Chinese Are There? An Exploration of Speaking Chinese

A page of the Menggu Ziyun, covering the syllables tsim to lim

I am a Chinese student, living and studying in China since I was born. My parents grew up in Heilongjiang Province, the Northern region of China, and they speak one of the Chinese dialects called “Dong Bei Hua.” However, I was born in the south in Zhejiang Province and grew up in Shanghai, so my contact with that dialect is only from my parents.

The endorsement of speaking Mandarin, which is the standard language of China, by the government makes my parents rarely speak their dialect. This reduces my exposure to Dong Bei Hua even further. The social environment rendered me only capable of speaking and understanding Mandarin. What is fun is that I cannot even understand what my parents mean when they casually say some words in their dialect. Because Mandarin is the standard language of China, every student needs to learn it at school. I have studied it for 18 years, and the study method is to read different writings from famous authors and analyze their importance. Sometimes students even need to ascertain the importance of a single word. For me, this is an arduous job.  

There are schools in China teaching other languages as a second language, such as Russian,  French, or Japanese, but English is the most popular one, and I studied it. Before high school,  I was in a typical Chinese school, where teachers pay more attention to science or Chinese. I  want to study abroad, so I chose to study in a bilingual international high school and took  IGCSE and IB programs. I took the higher level of “English as a second language”. With 9 other  students, I studied different types of writing, including reports and mail, and gave an oral  response regarding the book that we learned as a final exam. I think IB was salutary for my  English, because it both practices my writing and ameliorates my speaking.  

Overall, I only learned two languages, Chinese and English, and I will focus on the  comparison of them in this paper.  

2. Slang 

(Note: for all symbols in () in this section, they are pinyin.) 

For the popular ones, I believe here are three examples that most young Chinese people  currently prefer to use:  

离谱 (lí pǔ). This word means unbelievable, but the tone is more serious. It is often used  when something unexpected happens. For example, if there was a man who ran naked in winter,  we could use this word. I should mention that this word is not limited to derogatory  meanings. If you win lotteries, you could also use “离谱”. Usually, we still use its negative  meaning.  

永远的神 (yǒng yuǎn dē shén). This word means extraordinary, in a comedy sense. It is used  to acclaim a person and often abbreviated as “yyds” as its pinyin shows. However, as said, it  is only employed in informal conditions, usually when somebody plays well in games.  ⽜啊 (niú a). The first character means cattle. In China, cattle is a symbol of industriousness,  so it gradually evolves into the meaning of extraordinary. The “啊” has the function of an  exclamation mark. To some extent, this word is a synonym to the previous one, but with  wider use. For anything that you think is amazing, we could use this word to express our  feelings. (This is also an effective word to end a conversation, when you feel bored chatting  with a person who is unremittingly showing off.) 

These words are mostly used by young people. (At least I usually use them, and never heard  my parents say these). For the outdated ones, I have: 

冲浪 (chóng làng). This means surfing the internet. This word was used when the internet  first prevailed among normal Chinese citizens in the 2000s. I believe no one would still use  this word these days. 

囧 (jiǒng). This means embarrassment. This single character was so popular a decade ago that  even some movies’ titles employed this word. However, it only lasts a few years. I have not  heard this word for at least 4 years, and I think some autumnal males might continue using it.  压⼒⼭⼤ (yā lì shān dà). This means high pressure of work, study, etc. Similar to the  preceding character, this word was popular around 2011 to 2012, and is probably more used  currently than the other two. Still, its fad has declined, and I believe only middle-aged people  would use it.  

3. Dialect 

Zhongguo Guanhua (中國官話), or Medii Regni Communis Loquela (“Middle Kingdom’s Common Speech”), used on the frontispiece of an early Chinese grammar published by Étienne Fourmont (with Arcadio Huang) in 1742

As mentioned in the introduction section, I do not understand my parents’ home language,  which is Dong Bei Hua. I only speak Mandarin, the standard language of China. It contains  all characteristics of a standard language. For example, it has an official dictionary, called “现 代汉语词典”, or “dictionary of contemporary Chinese” in translation. Transforming Chinese  from ancient to contemporary, the revolution of modernizing ancient Chinese in the early  twentieth century was crucial. Leading characters at that time were famous authors, including  Lu Xun.

They advocated speaking Mandarin, and this historical reason counts for the “selection” for this standardized language. In 2000, the Chinese government enacted a new law that set Mandarin as the only writing system of China. From then on, Mandarin became the only standard language of China. Other aspects, such as literacy and spelling, are  undoubtedly satisfied. The last feature is grammar, and I think Chinese grammar is relatively  simple. It obeys subject, verb, objects (or SVO), same as English. Students acquire Mandarin grammar primarily from primary school, but different provinces have different rules. In  Anhui Provinces, for example, students need to study grammar until Gaokao.  

4. Comparison of sounds 

One of the most interesting and intriguing aspects that differs Chinese from other languages  is the system of “tone”. All Chinese languages, regardless of whether they are Mandarin or  Dong Bei Hua or other dialects, have 4 tones, denoted as ¯, ´, ˇ, `, in both pinyin and IPA.  This feature is absent in English. Even though one word might have the same IPA  representation, if the tone is different, it would be distinct between two words. For example,  [tsʰǣntɕāː] means join in, but [tsʰǣntɕǎː] means fake. For a novice of Chinese mandarin, this  might be one of the most torturous features. (To associate this to English, [tsh] has a sound  similar to -ts, such as cats; [tɕ] has a sound of [ʤ]; the rest vowels and consonants are the  same as the ones in English.) 

Apart from tones, there are phonetic inventories that do not appear in English. [ɤ] is a good example. It is a middle, back, unrounded vowel. The sound itself is similar to [ə] in English, such as about, but it should be pronounced a bit longer. One sample that contains this sound  could be its fourth sound: [ɤ̀], which means hungry.  

There are many differences between Chinese phonetics and English phonetics. What was discussed above are two typical examples. Chinese is quite a complex language system, so when I learned English, which I believe is more concise than Chinese, I did not find many problems regarding pronunciation. I could not speak as well as native speakers do, but there were little obstacles in my way of reading and learning English phonetics. However, for foreign mandarin learners, it is difficult for them to remember tones of different characters, since there was no such thing in their language. I could not defend my language in this aspect, but at least its grammar is easy. 

5. Conclusion 

This paper is more salutary than I expected. I originally believe that the purpose of this paper is to help us further understand some concepts we learned in class by comparing two languages. However, until I finished most of the paper, I found out that it helps me understand my native language as well. I did not know how Chinese characters should be written in IPA. 

What I have learned since I was born is Pinyin. In this sense, the paper broadens my view. I appreciate this chance that allows me to dig into what I keep in contact with but know nothing about. 

Written by Yujun Song

How Many Dialects of Chinese Are There? An Exploration of Speaking Chinese

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