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FinalFan18

Mandarin dialects, mutual intelligibility

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FinalFan18

Attempting to learn what many call 'standard mandarin' as in 'beijing dialect' of sorts...was just wondering how mutually intelligibile certain chinese dialects were. I know a mandarin speaker can't understand a cantonese speaker to saver their life as the two dialects are more like actual distinct languages but what about other dialects? specifically the taiwanese dialects... Can someone from Taiwan, speaking in local dialect, understand someone from Beijing and vice versa? How different are they? How long would it take to learn the Taiwanese dialect if you first know standard beijing mandarin? And as for Taiwanese TV/movies, etc. are they usually done in the local dialect or in the standard mandarin understood by most chinese?

Sorry for all the questions but I'm having trouble understanding the general make up of the chinese language as in what dialect i'm learning, where it's spoken, who understands/speaks it, what TV/movies,books,media, etc. will be beneficial to my study of the standard mandarin dialect and which will not...as in they will be too centered around a totally different dialect, like Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc.

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renzhe
Attempting to learn what many call 'standard mandarin' as in 'beijing dialect' of sorts...

Standard Mandarin is not the same as Beijing dialect, although some people seem to believe this.

Standard Mandarin was created using the vocabulary and grammar of the written canon at the time, and using the pronunciation of the educated Beijing elite at the time.

The language of the locals in today's Beijing is different in many ways from the official standard that is used by newscasters in both the Mainland and in Taiwan. Beijingers sound like Beijingers, not like newscasters. :mrgreen:

It's close enough to be intelligible, though, so no worries.

what about other dialects?

The link provided by wushijiao will give you a good overview of the language/dialect groups in China. If the two dialects come from different language groups (like Mandarin/Cantonese/Wu/Minnanese...) you can forget it.

If you are talking about two sub-dialects of Mandarin, then your mileage will vary, but don't expect miracles.

Can someone from Taiwan, speaking in local dialect, understand someone from Beijing and vice versa?

Virtually everyone in Taiwan will speak Guoyu, or standard Mandarin, as a first or second language, so they will have no trouble understanding someone from Beijing.

Taiwanese is a dialect of Minnanese, which is a different family than Mandarin, so you'll basically understand nothing if two native speakers are speaking in this dialect. Like Cantonese, you'd have to learn it basically from scratch.

How long would it take to learn the Taiwanese dialect if you first know standard beijing mandarin?

I've heard much anecdotal evidence that it is considerably easier to learn a Chinese dialect if you already speak one very well. It's not something you just pick up naturally, but I have friends from Hong Kong who learned standard Mandarin much easier than I did. Some of the vocabulary is shared, there are cognates, and you can leverage your knowledge of characters to figure out things. The better your knowledge of Chinese is, the easier this should be (e.g. knowledge of chengyu, older characters, Classical phrases, etc).

I think that most people will recommend learning standard Mandarin first (because it is so widespread and useful) and then concentrating on a dialect afterwards, if you need to do so.

And as for Taiwanese TV/movies, etc. are they usually done in the local dialect or in the standard mandarin understood by most chinese?

They are usually done in standard Mandarin, but there might be some parts done in the local dialect (often as comic relief). These parts will have subtitles though, so it's not a big deal.

Sorry for all the questions but I'm having trouble understanding the general make up of the chinese language as in what dialect i'm learning, where it's spoken, who understands/speaks it, what TV/movies,books,media, etc. will be beneficial to my study of the standard mandarin dialect and which will not...as in they will be too centered around a totally different dialect, like Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc.

There is comparatively little material written in Cantonese, and virtually none written in other dialects.

Almost everything written in books and magazines is written in vernacular Chinese, which is (essentially) written standard Mandarin. This is true even in regions where a non-Mandarin dialect is spoken, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

So basically everything you read will actively improve your Mandarin. On the other hand, it will be hard to find written materials for learning dialects, especially things like Shanghainese.

As for TV/movies, there has been a resurgence in the use of dialects (obviously, Cantonese is an exception, as it has always had a strong presence due to the Hong Kong film industry). Nowadays, you can often catch some Sichuanese, Shanghainese, Cantonese and heavily accented northern Mandarin in Mainland dramas and movies, and you'll often hear some Taiwanese in Taiwanese productions. 20 years ago, it was taboo.

But once again, almost all series in Chinese television come with subtitles, so you won't be missing out on any important information.

Learning dialects is a really cool linguistic exercise, and can be a great way of enriching your experience. But nowadays, standard Mandarin is really prominent and in 99% of the cases, this is what you should be learning first.

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atitarev

China, being a centralised country helped to make one standard - both official and national language - Mandarin (Putonghua), which may be not so good for dialects and ethnic minorities but good for unifying China.

Look at India, although it's democratic, if you try to enforce Hindi, you'll be accused of chauvinism and may be attacked by nationalists, like it happens every now and again. They keep talking about diversity but as a result, English is the winner, as no other language is preferred by the majority and no one can force it. All the attempts to make one language a national language failed, India chose a three-language model - Northern states teach Hindi + English + a southern language - Southern states teach a Southern language (local) + English + Hindi. You can see that English is still preferred and therefore known better than Hindi.

Compare to the Arab world, where they use another language - English or French to communicate, as the difference in dialects is too big (but not as big as between Chinese dialects) but the standard Arabic is considered stilted and is not used as a national or lingua franca by any Arab country. Unlike Mandarin, standard or classical Arabic is no-one's mother tongue.

If China becomes as free as Taiwan is now, the dialects will start thriving, of course at the expense of Mandarin and like in Taiwan, movies will be shot in dialects, radio station will broadcast in dialects. What do you think?

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vampire

movies cant be shot in dialect and radio station cant broadcast in dialect in mainland? I think in taiwan they need the mandarin more since there are a considerable percentage of its population that cant understand taiwanese, while in mainland the majority of the population in every region speak the dialect of that region.

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chrix

Well, in Taiwan nowadays even politicians without Taiwanese ancestry have to campaign in Taiwanese in the South because the populace expects them to.

Studies show that most Hakka people know Taiwanese as well and a majority of second-generation (and later) mainlanders do too.

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wushijiao

Also, I find Victor Mair's work to be pretty interesting, and in this article he talks about why Taiwanese as a written language hasn't developed:

http://pinyin.info/readings/mair/taiwanese.html

In sum, I'd strongly suggest learning Mandarin, for all the reasons outlined above. Also, it's my understanding that most TV shows and pop media in Taiwan is in Mandarin, although there are quite a few Hakka and Taiwanese TV and radio stations (correct me if wrong), but the print media is 100% in Standard Chinese.

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chrix

It's a very interesting article, and sums up the situation well.

I guess there's definitely a lack of political will and probably too much bickering within the Taiwanese-codification community. However, the former administration implemented some programs to facilitate mother tongue education in the school system. Officially this was set up for all linguistic groups, but there was only a critical mass of teaching candidates for Taiwanese (Hakka and the Formosan languages just don't have enough speakers, or enough commitment on part of their speakers).

Personally, I think it's a decision up to the community, but if you really want to implement bilingualism on all levels (not just a H-L diglossia kind of situation), you have to do it right...

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wushijiao
If China becomes as free as Taiwan is now, the dialects will start thriving, of course at the expense of Mandarin and like in Taiwan, movies will be shot in dialects, radio station will broadcast in dialects. What do you think?

I really don't think the language situation in India is comparable to the situation with China. For one, all of China (minus the some of minority areas...Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur...etc) speaks a dialect/regionalect/language that is similar, and in the same language family. In fact, I recently had an email conversation with one of my friends about why I feel suspicious of the mutual intelligibility criterion and I wrote:

"I've actually spent a lot of time thinking about the whole mutual intelligibility thing. Essentially, these debates usually end up in Westerners upholding mutual intelligibility vs. Chinese who don't. Westerns then usually claim that the Chinese position is politically motivated. Although there are clearly political motivations behind the Chinese position, the mutual intelligibility criteria also is problematic, in my opinion.

What is missing from these discussions is the issue of time. Yes, a Chinese person from place X and place Y may not be able to understand each other, but if person X lives in Y and chats with people there, how long will it take him/her to learn the form of speech? I think in many cases, the person can become communicative in relatively short amounts of time (weeks or months, in the case of intra-dialect areas, ie Wu to Wu (Ningbo to Shanghai, as in a friend of mine's grandparents' experience- and it's interesting to note that her grandfather had a high school education and her grandmother never went to school, but they still learned Shanghaiese in a matter of weeks/months). In regionalect to regionalect cases (Mandarin to Yue, Yue to Wu....etc) given the right circumstances (people who like you and are willing to talk to you in their form of speech, a sense of inclusion, strong motivation/necessity on the part of the learner...etc), people can become conversational relatively quickly, say, about 6 months to two years. Of course, there are limits to people being accepted in certain communities, and since Mandarin is promoted as the national language, Mandarin speakers now have little incentive to learn other forms of speech. But, I know of lots of anecdotal stories of people picking up other forms of speech. This is in contrast, I believe, to the difficulty non-Sinitic native speakers have in picking up Chinese, even given the right circumstances.

Personally, I think that within language families, one needs to consider the factor of time. Human beings are communicative, and it was probably the case throughout most of human history (before the invention of the nation-state based on a unified, standardized languages promoted through a standardized writing system, radio, and TV) that people lived in large dialect continums, and people might travel from their village to a town on the other side of a mountain range or valley, and a person would learn an unfamiliar dialect through talking with locals. People's brains have the capacity to adapt to different forms of speech relatively easily, and one often hears about how people who live in multi-ethnic areas (say, in diverse empires back in Europe centuries ago, or in countries like Malaysia these days) are able to know various forms of speech simply through lots of communication."

Anyway, I think that relative ease of learning other forms of speech is one thing.

The more important thing is that Chinese people, generally speaking, deeply value national unity, as an aspirational goal, as something they draw strength from identity-wise, and as a social/historical construct. Being able to communicate with one form of speech nationwide and the ability to understand the written form universally is seen as a good thing, I think, by almost everyone. On top of that, as in Mair's article above, many people feel that their own form of speech really isn't all that prestigious. Even if there were widespread use of dialects in radio and TV, I'm not sure if it would lead to anything other than slightly better ratings. In general, I think it would be almost impossible, under current circumstances, for any social movement to develop that could challenge the role of Mandarin or the status of China as a unified entity through a regional movement, with exceptions being made to minorities areas, in which those movements are somewhat evident (but will probably be unsuccessful in the long-run).

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chrix
"I've actually spent a lot of time thinking about the whole mutual intelligibility thing. Essentially, these debates usually end up in Westerners upholding mutual intelligibility vs. Chinese who don't. Westerns then usually claim that the Chinese position is politically motivated. Although there are clearly political motivations behind the Chinese position, the mutual intelligibility criteria also is problematic, in my opinion.

Yes, it's a tricky issue, and many linguists have given up on it, leaving it to the politicians (actually the very definition of dialect is two-fold, a linguistic one based on the principles of mutual intelligibility and dialect continua, and a political one based on whatever the government/language community wants. It's considered not appropriate for a linguist to tell people that their mother tongue is not a language). But for some of the cases cited from Europe, i.e. Dutch-German, or French-Italian, where you have mutually intelligible speech forms at the ends, that are nonetheless linked by a chain of mutually intelligible dialects, this has been called "dialect chain" or "dialect continuum". Sometimes, if the politicians/statisticians insist on a number, some linguists have been known to just count them as two. For instance, Fijian has a lot of dialects which form a large dialect chain across the archipelago. At the two ends, the speakers don't understand each other, but there's no cut-off point. So many list two Fijian languages...

Wushijiao, regarding your ideas of time, this is not relevant to the definition of mutual intelligibility, because this criterion posits the highly hypothetical situation where two monolingual speakers speak exclusively their mother tongues without any accommodation whatsoever. Then a percentage of how much the speakers would understand each other is estimated. But whatever you call it, it's clear that the Sinitic languages are closely related, so it would be quite easy to learn each other's languages (though the degree of proximity varies, of course).

Another issue that puzzles me personally is that even within the Sinitic languages, there's plenty of dialectal variation to the point that speakers of several dialects of say Cantonese might not understand each other. Or the Hokkien speakers of Penang, Malaysia, can't communicate with Taiwanese speakers. It's hard to get reliable data on these differences, so I've settled for a compromise in that I call those "regiolects/topolects" "languages" and everything below "dialects" (though I draw a distinction between Southern Min and Northern Min).

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wushijiao
regarding your ideas of time, this is not relevant to the definition of mutual intelligibility, because this criterion posits the highly hypothetical situation where two monolingual speakers speak exclusively their mother tongues without any accommodation whatsoever. Then a percentage of how much the speakers would understand each other is estimated.

That's exactly why I think it's a flawed model that doesn't fit reality or historical interactions. Of course, I'm not positing a better model, just adding that the factor of time should be taken into account somehow.

Just to give an example, a old co-worker of mine moved from Fengxian in Shanghaii to Jiading (roughly a two hour drive). The accent was different enough in Jiading that it took her a few weeks before understanding the locals (who often don't go to downtown Shanghai very much). Now, let's say she went another few miles further. It might have taken her a month to adjust. Or if she went to Suchou-it might have taken her a few months to adjust in full. But, based on mutual intelligibility, she may have been said to have not been able to understand Jiadinghua, which would be crazy to say. It just took a bit of exposure.

So, where and when do you cut the cake on this dialect continuum is indeed a problem. I don't have the answer, but I do want this to be known to people who think that mutual intelligibility is a perfect criterion.

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anonymoose
Ningbo to Shanghai, as in a friend of mine's grandparents' experience- and it's interesting to note that her grandfather had a high school education and her grandmother never went to school, but they still learned Shanghaiese in a matter of weeks/months

How do you judge when a person from Ningbo has "learned" Shanghai dialect? The two languages are similar enough that one does not really need to "learn" the other in order to be able to communicate. There are many people from areas surrounding Shanghai who have been living in Shanghai for decades, and their Shanghaihua is really a mixture of regular Shanghaihua and their own dialect. Does this count as having "learned" Shanghaihua? Incidentally, one of the most well-known words in Shanghaihua, "ala", meaning "we" is actually of Ningbohua origin. Original Shanghaihua (even as spoken by many old Shanghainese people today) does not use "ala" for "we".

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chrix

yeah, you won't find any serious linguist who thinks that this is a perfect criterion. In fact I've met linguists who professed their utter lack of interest in such questions (and it doesn't matter since linguists usually study a given speech variety, and the methodolology is the same, be it language or dialect; though it might affect funding).

But regarding your example: if you had 60% intelligibility at the beginning, it would take the speaker some time to grow accustomed to that variety, and after a while they will understand more. So this doesn't necessarily work as a counter-argument to the model. Of course how to quantify the degree of mutual intelligibility is another tricky question :conf

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wushijiao
There are many people from areas surrounding Shanghai who have been living in Shanghai for decades, and their Shanghaihua is really a mixture of regular Shanghaihua and their own dialect. Does this count as having "learned" Shanghaihua?

I'd say, that if they can communicate successfully (in terms of listening and speaking) then it counts as having "learned" even if they have an accent or whatever. In the case of the grandparents, they knew the Ningbo and Shanghai versions of many words (which were often quite similar). (Also, not to mention they learned Mandarin quickly in the 1950's when they were sent to Henan).

yeah, you won't find any serious linguist who thinks that this is a perfect criterion. In fact I've met linguists who professed their utter lack of interest in such questions (and it doesn't matter since linguists usually study a given speech variety, and the methodolology is the same, be it language or dialect; though it might affect funding).

Interesting. :mrgreen:

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renzhe
movies cant be shot in dialect and radio station cant broadcast in dialect in mainland?

I remember hearing about a soap opera in Shanghainese that was supposedly broadcast on a local channel recently. I don't know how much of this local programming is present today, but it must be more than in the past. In many modern TV dramas, you get bits and pieces of dialects used.

I think in taiwan they need the mandarin more since there are a considerable percentage of its population that cant understand taiwanese, while in mainland the majority of the population in every region speak the dialect of that region.

I think that this is changing with the big migrations to Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chengdu, etc. It's not just poor workers, but also middle-level management people looking for career opportunities. Several of my university friends are working in Shanghai now, and only one of them is from that region.

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wushijiao
I remember hearing about a soap opera in Shanghainese that was supposedly broadcast on a local channel recently. I don't know how much of this local programming is present today, but it must be more than in the past. In many modern TV dramas, you get bits and pieces of dialects used.

At least when I was in SH, they used to have a Shanghaiese popular TV drama in a local restaurant...the TV show seemed to be quite popular. Although, if 'm not mistaken (and I very well could be since I'm taking about 3-5 years ago), they only had that one popular drama (at around 5pm). The rest of the shows were in Putonghua. Dialect usage was limited.

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atitarev
I really don't think the language situation in India is comparable to the situation with China. For one, all of China (minus the some of minority areas...Mongol, Tibetan, Uighur...etc) speaks a dialect/regionalect/language that is similar, and in the same language family.

It is not comparable in the way an official language is used in China and India. Northern India is comfortably called Hindi belt, where Hindi dialects and similar languages (including Urdu - official in Pakistan) are happy to use Hindi along their own language/dialect. Southern India vehemently resists Hindi. The effect is quite different in non-democratic Suharto Indonesia, where Suharto imposed Bahasa Indonesia language making sure everyone speaks it. Dialect or language, my point is, if China were democratic and decentralised like India, there could be a variety of standards and the choice of which language to learn might be based on where you are in China. I also think that national unity feeling is largely attributed to the campaigns of the Chinese government, not that I think it's a bad thing!. In the much smaller Taiwan the nationalistic feelings of Hakka and Minnan speakers are stronger.

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taylor04

Also, some dialects are closer to mandarin than others. I lived in Hangzhou for a year and found many words being very close. The funny thing is I can understand most of a conversation in Hangzhouhua, and then when I went to Sichuan they used a lot of words comparable to Mandarin so I could pick things out of a conversation(not understanding most though). For example, my Chinese friend asked what time they opened and they kept saying Hu dian, hu dian, instead of wu dianzhong, I understood but my friend didn't (benefit of not understanding mandarin in the first place I guess). However I can go to different places in Zhejiang, even an hour or two from Hangzhou and hardly understand anything word (particularly shanghai)

Here is someone saying they are speaking jiaxinghua, I don't know if it is all jiaxinghua, sounds like he throws some mandarin in too, but I can understand 90% of it from guessing, even the non mandarin sounding parts. I've never been to Jiaxing(but could be close to hangzhouhua).

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Lugubert
Southern India vehemently resists Hindi

on efforts to have it forced upon them as a national language to supersede the Dravidian language family. On the other hand, Bollywood movies create a wide understanding of "Filmi Hindi". Especially in southern tourist places, a smattering of Hindi can be at least as useful as fluent English.

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atitarev
On the other hand, Bollywood movies create a wide understanding of "Filmi Hindi". Especially in southern tourist places, a smattering of Hindi can be at least as useful as fluent English.

You may be right but Southern Indian movies in four major southern Indian languages are a success, seriously competing with Hindi-based Bollywood. Besides, Hindi is not even an official language in many states, due to the resistance. The cultural variety promoted in India in the end means this - slow death of specific languages and the domination of English, despite being the former "colonial" language, it's the only language considered neutral these days, it's better known and is considered good to know for many other obvious reasons. My point is - a language can be promoted in masses at the expense of others. The more one language is used, the less others are used.

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