Language in China can be more than a little confusing for the uninitiated. Despite the dominance of standardised written Chinese, intra and inter-regional spoken dialects still reign supreme in verbal communications. There are over 50 dialects spoken in China, many mutually unintelligible and because of this most people aren’t able to communicate with each other verbally. However, most of them find it easy to communicate in writing.
If you are new to the Chinese language, you are bound to get confused between the dialects. Certain similarities can be noticed, but it is difficult to pin down clear linguistic trends for each dialect.
Here are some common Chinese dialects:
Only a few years ago, it was almost impossible to communicate verbally with the Chinese, both overseas and with locally, because of the massive difference between dialects. So the Politburo decided to push Mandarin to be learnt at school as a national standardised language. Currently, it is the most commonly used dialect in China. Whether you are a local or a foreigner, if you know Mandarin you’d be able to communicate with Chinese people. If you want to learn Chinese, then Mandarin is the way to go. It is also the easiest to learn, as there are many places offering mandarin classes in Singapore, compared to classes teaching Cantonese.
Wu is the second most commonly used dialect in China with over 80 million people speaking this language natively. It is mostly spoken around Shanghai in the coastal area. However, the grammar used in Wu is a bit more complex as compared to Mandarin.
Yue / Cantonese
Spoken by nearly 60 million people, the Cantonese or Yue dialect is quite different from other dialects. People who don’t speak Cantonese can’t understand what it is and those who are who grew up with Yue Chinese cannot understand anything but Cantonese. It is commonly spoken in the Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.
More than 70 million people speak Min Chinese in the Fujian province. It was developed using different grammar and vocabulary from the rest of Chinese language history. It’s difficult to find the right characters to write several Min words, which is taken from Mandarin.
This dialect is very similar to the Mandarin dialect and has been strongly influenced by it. It is spoken by the people of the Hunan province. The reason why it is similar to Mandarin is that this province’s border touches the Mandarin-speaking territories from southwest, north and west.
This dialect is spoken mostly in the isolated regions where the central government’s influence is not as strong. It is also spoken in Taiwan, and it has variants that are different from each other.
Gan had many similarities with the Hakka dialect and spoken by over 20 million people. Most of these speakers belong to the Jiangxi province. Gan has a variety of dialects within itself and also contains words that no longer exist in Mandarin.
These are the most commonly used dialects of Chinese. If you are new to the language, we would suggest that you go for Mandarin because it is the most widely spoken among locals and foreigners.