Local languages in China
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, which is largely based on the Beijing dialect known in Chinese as Putonghua (普通话, “common language”). Mandarin has been the main language of education on the mainland since the 1950s and the main language for government and media, so most people speak it with varying degrees of fluency. It is spoken as a mother tongue by only 70% of the population, which means that it is not widely understood in the more remote parts of the country, especially by older or less educated people. Unless otherwise stated, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are in standard Mandarin. Since Mandarin is tonal, the correct pronunciation of the four tones is necessary to be understood.
Many regions, especially in the southeast and south of the country, also have their own “dialect”, but this term has a different meaning for Chinese than for other languages. Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligible; the spoken forms are as different as French and Italian or English and Dutch, which are considered separate, though related, languages. However, all Chinese dialects are (mostly) written the same way, and calling them “dialects” rather than “languages” is politically correct among linguists as well as in China. Like standard Mandarin, the “dialects” are all tonal languages. Even within Mandarin (the large brown language area on the map), pronunciation varies greatly between regions and there is often a generous dose of local slang or terminology to lighten the mix.
After Mandarin, the two largest groups are Wu, spoken in the region around Shanghai, Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu, and Cantonese (Yue), spoken in most parts of Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau. The Min (Fujian) group includes Minnan (Hokkien), spoken in the region around Xiamen and in Taiwan, and Mindong (Fuzhou Hua, Hokchiu), spoken around Fuzhou. Related dialects are Teochew (Chiuchao), spoken around Shantou and Chaozhou in northern Guangdong, and Hainanese, spoken in the island province of Hainan. Hakka is spoken in several parts of southern China, but is more related to the northern dialects.
Most Chinese are bilingual in their local vernacular and Mandarin, and it is not uncommon to encounter people who are trilingual in a local, regional and national language, perhaps Hakka, Cantonese and Mandarin. Some who are older, less educated or from the countryside may only speak the local dialect, but this is unlikely for tourists. It is often helpful to have a guide who speaks the local language, as it identifies that person as an insider and you as the insider’s friend. While you can easily get by with standard Mandarin in most parts of China, the locals are always happy to hear any attempt to say a few words or phrases in the local dialect, so learning a few simple greetings will help you get to know the locals much more easily. In general, an understanding or appreciation of the local language can be useful when travelling to more remote areas. In these areas, a phrasebook that includes Chinese characters is still a great help, as written Chinese is more or less the same everywhere.
Formal written Chinese is the same in every respect, regardless of the local dialect. Even Japanese and Korean use many of the same characters with the same or similar meaning. However, there is a complication here. Mainland Chinese uses “simplified characters” introduced in the mid-1950s to facilitate literacy. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and by many overseas Chinese, but also on the mainland in advertising and on commercial signs. For example, you see 银行 (yínháng) as often as 銀行 for “bank”. However, the simplification was quite systematic, which means that not all hope is lost for the traveller trying to learn some character-reading skills. On the other hand, native speakers usually have no trouble reading either script, so learning one of the two is usually sufficient.
In calligraphy, the number of scripts is much more varied, as different painters use different unique styles, but they have been grouped into five different styles. They are zhuanshu(篆书／篆書), lishu(隶书/隸書), kaishu (楷书/楷書), xingshu (行书/行書) and caoshu (草书/草書), of which kaishu is the script officially used in China today. When calligraphy is written in kaishu, traditional Chinese characters are usually used because of their higher aesthetic value. The casual traveller can easily get by without learning the other four styles, although learning them would certainly be helpful for those with a deep interest in traditional Chinese art.
In the far west of the country, Turkic languages such as Uighur, Kyrgyz and Kazakh, as well as other languages such as Tibetan, are spoken by some of the non-Han ethnic minorities. In the north and northeast, other minority languages such as Manchu, Mongolian and Korean are also spoken in the areas populated by the respective ethnic minorities. In Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan and Guangxi in the south, there are also many other ethnic minorities such as the Miao, Dong, Zhuang, Bai and the Naxi who speak their own languages. However, with the possible exception of the elderly, Mandarin is also generally usable in these areas, and most younger people are bilingual in their minority language and Mandarin. Unfortunately, some of the minority languages such as Manchu are dying out.
English language in China
Over the past twenty years, Chinese students have learned English as a compulsory subject from late primary or middle school. Passing an English exam is a prerequisite for obtaining a four-year university degree, regardless of major. However, the focus of instruction at all levels is on formal grammar and, to a lesser extent, writing, not speaking or listening. While knowledge of very basic words and phrases such as “Hello”, “thank you”, “OK” and “Bye bye” seems almost universal, few are able to engage in English conversation.
Even in the big cities, outside the major tourist attractions and establishments that cater specifically to foreigners, it is rare to find locals who speak English. Airline and major hotel staff – especially those of international chains – usually speak some basic to conversational English, but in-depth knowledge is rarely seen. Language skills of university graduates, even those with degrees in English, range from non-existent to fluent.
While English signage or menus are increasingly common in China, especially at or near tourist attractions, they are often written in grammatically incorrect English, with incorrect sentence structure, unusual word choices or even complete mistranslations of several words. Such signage can be difficult to read, but since “Chinglish” follows certain rules, it can usually be deciphered. Often the translations are simply a word-for-word equivalent of a Chinese expression, which, like a word puzzle, can sometimes be put together with a little thought, but in other cases can be completely confusing.
When speaking, as everywhere where English language skills are limited, it is helpful to simplify your English. Speak slowly, avoid slang and idioms and use simple declarative sentence structures in the present tense. Don’t say “Would you mind if I came back tomorrow?” but stick to simpler, more abrupt phrases like “Tomorrow I will come back.” This brings the sentence closer to its Chinese equivalent and is therefore not necessarily condescending.
One way to meet people is to ask for “English Corner” – a time and place in the city where locals, often with a foreign host or speaker, meet to practice spoken English. Typically they take place on Friday evenings or Sundays in public parks, English schools, bookshops and university campuses. There may also be ‘Corners’ for French, German, Russian and perhaps other languages.
Other languages in Chin
Although not as widely spoken as English, there are some foreign languages in use in China. Korean is spoken as a mother tongue by the ethnic Korean minority in the north-east of the country. Japanese is spoken by some professionals in international companies. German is a popular language for professionals in engineering. People in border areas and some elderly people are sometimes able to speak Russian.
In the West, Chinese has a reputation for being difficult. The language is denser than European languages, which means that much more can be said in a text message with the same number of characters. Each character corresponds to one syllable, and each syllable can have several meanings, depending on the tone with which it is pronounced. Compared to Japanese or Korean, Chinese contains far fewer loan words from European languages such as English, which means that more effort is needed to acquire vocabulary. Grammar, on the other hand, may seem quite simple to a Westerner. Verbs are static, regardless of the subject and whether they refer to the past, present or future. Genders of nouns do not exist, and there is no separate form of nouns for plurals. The main difficulties are the presence of multiple consonants, which are not present in European languages, and the use of the four tones.
Mandarin, like Vietnamese and Thai, is a tonal language that uses pitch in sounds to assign different meanings. “Ma” could mean mother, horse, deaf, cannabis or guilt, depending on the pitch. Homophones are also common; the same sound at the same pitch usually has dozens of meanings. “Zhong1” (“Zhong” on the 1st note) can mean China, loyalty, clock, chime, end, a bowl, etc. They all have different Chinese characters, just the same sound at the same pitch. While homophones are hardly a problem in most everyday conversations, it is very common for Chinese to ask how to spell someone’s name by listing the characters one by one. “My name is Wang Fei (王菲). Wang is the “wang” with four strokes, Fei is the “fei” in “shifei” (clap), with a grass on top.”
Written Chinese looks like a mysterious secret code to some, but if you can recognise so many commercial logos – which are usually not logically related – you will be impressed by your ability to remember so many characters – most of them logically related and formed according to certain rules.
Theoretically, there are more than 50,000 Chinese characters. The good news is that more than 85% are obsolete or rarely used. Like native speakers of many languages, most Chinese could not tell you how many characters are needed to read a book and never bother to count how many characters they know. One could argue that junior students should learn at least 2000 characters and university graduates 5000 characters.
To bridge the gap between recognising and reading aloud, Pinyin was developed, using the Latin script as a tool for teaching Chinese. The pronunciation of Pinyin is not intuitive, as certain letters and consonant clusters are used to represent sounds that do not occur in European languages and are therefore not pronounced as a Westerner would expect. Nevertheless, learning Pinyin, even at a basic level, has enormous practical value for the traveller. Written pinyin is less useful, as most Chinese will not recognise place names or addresses in pinyin, and the same pinyin can be used by different Chinese characters; it is always better to use characters for written information.
The majority of Chinese people cannot speak functional English, and you too may have trouble finding your way around a difficult new language. A common remedy used in commerce is to type the amount you want into a calculator and show the other side. Taxi drivers have been known to hold up a finger to represent 10RMB (as 1RMB would be an unreasonably low fare), or show you a few notes representing the amount they expect you to pay.
A useful workaround is to use the Google Translate app on your phone and download the English – Simplified Chinese dictionary beforehand for offline use (as Google sites are blocked in China). This allows you to write almost anything on your phone in English and translate it instantly into Chinese.
Interpreters in China
For foreign travellers in China, it can be an advantage to have an interpreter at your side. Taxi drivers and many other people do not speak English. Prices and quality vary considerably, but there are some Western-run organisations and marketplaces that specialise in translation and interpreting for English-speaking clients. These exist both as websites (e.g. SeekPanda) and smartphone apps (e.g. Tripper).