Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

Linguistic Climate of Specific Regions


Takeshi
 Share

Recommended Posts

Well, a lot of people here put a lot of focus on "do the people in this part of China speak good Mandarin?". Many people seem to think that if the Mandarin spoken in a region is close to standard, then it's easier to live there, learn Mandarin there, etc.

 

My opinion? I do agree that regions with Mandarin close to standard are (probably) easier to live in/learn Mandarin with all other factors equal. However, I don't actually think a city having a dialect is necessarily a problem exactly as long as you can learn it. Of course this depends a lot on the motivation/goals of the foreigner. Some people might want to learn Mandarin Chinese as used in China in general only, and don't care about local dialects at all. I personally believe that in learning language, the most effective method is to immerse yourself in the actual language of the local people. So I would advocate for a learning with an aim to acquire the overall linguistic abilities of the average local person that fits the closest sociocultural definition of oneself, whether that means standard or accented Mandarin, or Mandarin and a dialect, or whatnot.

 

What's more difficult than whether or not a city speaks standard mandarin is the "linguistic climate" * of a city so to speak. That is, how complicated the linguistic breakdown of the city is. A more complex "linguistic climate" would be a city where there are multiple dialects spoken, and multiple forms of these dialects spoken by different people, or in different situations. A significant portion of the population being proficient in English and having the habit of using English in daily life (esp. with foreigners) also contributes to a more complicated "linguistic climate". A simple "linguistic climate" on the other hand is a city where most people speak the same way, whether this way is "standard Mandarin" or some other dialect.

 

*: Term made up by me.

 

In a city with a simple linguistic climate, it is relatively easy for a foreigner to come in and adapt to the main local language and by extension the customs etc. However, in a city with a more complicated linguistic climate, there would be more difficulty. With multiple possible sub-identities and languages in the city, the foreigner has to develop an identity for himself out of the numerous possibilities. What often ends up happening then is that the foreigner's identity ends up being the easiest one for him to take, which often ends up being a "not-so-local" sort of identity, this may make life more difficult.

 

Basically that means that, in the big cities where English is strong, the foreigner would have less chances to use Chinese in general as using English would be a natural part of his life. In "local-hub" cities where English use isn't necessarily that strong, but the local dialect(s) is restricted to use by more local residents and a significant portion of the population uses standard-ish Mandarin to communicate, the foreigner would most likely end up being in that group, and be unable to learn the local dialect(s) proficiently without serious effort. In a not-so big city in a relatively-standard mandarin speaking part of China, the linguistic climate would be very simple as everything would be done in this relatively-standard Mandarin, and there would be little English or dialect use to confuse the foreigner. Similarly, in a say, random Hakka village, most interactions would be done in Hakka unless otherwise stipulated, and it would be relatively simple for a foreigner in the area to acquire Hakka on top of Standard Mandarin.

 

I guess in China any place with a dialect by default has a slightly complicated linguistic climate because Mandarin use is everywhere and Mandarin will be enforced in schools and certain public relations on top of the use of the dialect. However, I still think that whilst keeping this in regard, different cities with their own dialects can still have different levels of "linguistic climate" complexity. In this thread I would like to invite people to describe the linguistic climate of the cities they are familiar with, to help people get an idea of the cities.

 

Guangzhou: I would say the linguistic climate is somewhat complicated, but probably still on the simple side when compared to certain parts of China. There are only two dialects you actually have to think about that are really "local", that is, Guangzhou Cantonese and Mandarin. (Hakka, Chiuchow etc speakers will be found, but knowledge of these languages isn't necessary for everyone.) Use of Cantonese in Guangzhou is really at the middle point. It's hard to give a percentage, but I'd say around 60% of the people I meet are native Cantonese-speakers. It's weak enough that it's possible to live in Guangzhou without Cantonese, especially if your social circles are mostly consisted of non-Cantonese speakers, but it's strong enough that learning Cantonese is plausible and could be useful. It is both socially acceptable in Guangzhou to initiate random conversations on the street with someone in either Cantonese or Mandarin. (However it is common to use your intuition by judging the person's looks to guess whether they are a Cantonese speaker or not before using Cantonese.) Cantonese is used frequently in informal situations by the local Cantonese-speaking population, however, Guangzhou Cantonese speakers are very accomodating and young people are comfortable speaking standard (but possibly slightly accented) Mandarin. It is not strange for a group of people to all (try to) switch to Mandarin for one Mandarin-speaker who does not understand Cantonese. Many young people in universities are somewhat proficient in English, but I do not think English use is very pervasive, and it is possible to avoid getting stuck using English in daily life. For a foreigner, most people you meet will assume you will have some proficiency in Mandarin (but not Cantonese), and initiate conversations with you in Mandarin. In a sense, learning Cantonese is a little hard because not everyone speaks it, and everyone will prefer to speak to you in Mandarin if doing so is more convenient, however I think it isn't impossible to learn Cantonese here if you try. It is a very good place to learn Mandarin (if you don't mind people having a possibly not-completely-standard accent, but it's really not that bad), as Cantonese is not completely required for life and English use is not pervasive.

 

Hong Kong: I don't know whether I should call the linguistic climate here "simple" or "complicated". In once sense it's more simple than Guangzhou because only one language, Cantonese is used by the main local population in most situations. However in one sense it's more complicated because English is also used in certain formal situations and for international communications, and this makes English proficiency to be almost required for high-social status positions. Passing procifiency in Mandarin is also helpful for dealing with mainlanders, but high proficiency is not really required. For a foreigner, most people you meet will assume you speak English (and not Cantonese) and initiate conversations with you in English, but if you do speak fluent Cantonese, you can reply in Cantonese and in most cases the conversation will switch to Cantonese and nobody will blink an eyelid. (If your proficiency is weak, some people may prefer to speak to you in English to make communication easier though.) It is possible to survive as an expat only knowing English, but unlike Guangzhou where it is somewhat more optional if you know Mandarin, knowledge of Cantonese is an absolute necessity to involve yourself in the local life in HK. English use is much stronger in certain parts of the city, namely HK Island area, while New Territories is mostly Cantonese. However, because of the overall high English proficiency of the population, coupled with the expectation that foreigners speak English, I would find HK to be a difficult place for a beginner learner of Cantonese to get a chance to use the language. (It's not completely impossible though.) It's obviously not the best place to learn Mandarin unless you happen to be in completely Mainlander social circles (which is possible if you are say, a graduate student in university). The Cantonese spoken by the population is very homogeneous, (moreso than the Cantonese or Mandarin of Guangzhou), and only very old speakers will deviate from this.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

The way it works is: people in a city speak that city's language.  If they need to talk to outsiders, they will switch to Mandarin. 

 

Foreigners learning local languages is kind of a party trick.  If you get bored with Mandarin and want a bigger challenge, then learn the local language.  Otherwise do what everyone else does and learn a few words for various social situations. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The way it works is: people in a city speak that city's language. If they need to talk to outsiders, they will switch to Mandarin.

 

Vast oversimplification. OP already gave a couple of examples of the linguistic climates (I'm pretty sure this phrase has been used many times before with broadly the same meaning, sorry OP!) of various cities that are considerably more complex than this.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

From what I've seen, people who grew up in and around Kunming tend to talk 昆明话 at home and with each other when outside.They switch to Mandarin/Putonghua when talking with me. Their 普通话 has a regional flavor that isn't difficult to recognize.

 

Of course there are also small pockets of people who have moved here from other parts of China. Sometimes one company will mainly employ people from a certain part of Hunan or Sichuan for example. Also, there are people who have moved to Kunming from their Yunnan villages and they prefer to speak dialect at home. So you hear 哈尼话 , 彝族话 and 白族话 quite a bit (among others.)

 

I've made no effort to learn dialect and don't really plan to. Have, of course, picked up a few words just by absorption. But when I use them, it nearly always backfires: the speaker tends to reply completely in dialect, and I'm immediately lost. Would prefer to have the conversation stay in 普通话。

 

However, I don't actually think a city having a dialect is necessarily a problem exactly as long as you can learn it. Of course this depends a lot on the motivation/goals of the foreigner.

 

For better or for worse, I have zero motivation to learn any of the local dialects. But I admit to not being a linguist.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think you're mixing up language and dialect. Granted where dialect ends and another language begins is highly controversial and political.

 

Where dialects are involved I think highly complex is not bad for learning, it may, mainly at the beginning stages, be a bit confusing, but being introduced early on to the whole valid range of vocabulation of sounds may prevent a lot of frustration of not understanding at more advanced levels. We all know the stories of learning a language for years and when put to use in the real world fails miserably. As such I think a large city of migrants where everyone defaults to mandarin when communicating outside family and close friends is a good place to study. Probably much better then a small city with only one dialect. That small city would not only lack variety, but you also tend to learn a non standard accent that is mostly harder to understand, even by natives. Stacking a non native accent with a dialectual accent is likely not to improve communication.

 

When people tend to default to other languages such as Cantonese or English it may be different as this diminishes listening practice.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think you're mixing up language and dialect. Granted where dialect ends and another language begins is highly controversial and political.

 

Not sure if you meant me or the Original Poster. I went back and edited my comment.

 

I do get the two terms confused here in China. Thought it was a fairly easy and clear distinction when I first arrived, but the more time I spend around these parts the more muddy and ill-defined it seem.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sorry for the confusion, I meant OP. Talking about dialects and then giving examples like Cantonese and Hakka.

As said where dialect ends and a new language begins is hard to decide and highly political. In Chinese this is probably even more confusing as, at least my limited impression, it's far more a very broad spectrum and less clear cut language borders. While in Europe formal administrative borders have sometimes created more distinct language borders between linguistically close languages. 

 

Personally I would consider Cantonese and Hakka different languages from Mandarin. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I used the term "dialect" mainly because that's the term commonly used in the Chinese sense, whether or not it is linguistically correct. I'll keep using this terminology mainly because I feel it is the most widely understood. If people really want to take offence to it, I can edit out all mentions of "dialect" with "variety", but this term is less commonly understood and I don't see the need to be so politically correct.

 

Thank you abcdefg for your post.

 

I guess different people prefer different kinds of linguistic climates. I would prefer having a somewhat less "complicated" linguistic climate in general over a more complicated one because I find that easier to integrate into, but I guess some people would find a "complicated" linguistic climate to be not as big of a problem if Mandarin is widely used and they don't mind only focusing on Mandarin.

 

But either way, I think linguistic climate is something very interesting that you really have to live in a city for a while to know. (Though perhaps for the famous cities like Beijing or Shanghai just reading the forums can give you a general clue, people rarely talk about these topics in detail for most cities.) I am especially happy to hear input from people from the less-famous cities because this information is really hard to find otherwise, and it can be useful help to people choosing a city.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

 

I used the term "dialect" mainly because that's the term commonly used in the Chinese sense, whether or not it is linguistically correct.

I don't take offense and can't be bothered too much about it being linguistically correct either. In my perception, from a learners perspective, their is a big difference between mutually understandable variations and mutually unintelligible variations. So if you want to discuss complexity in relation to quality as a learner environment I think you have to distinguish even if the difference is quite arbitrary. Complexity comes in many forms and not all are equal.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Takeshi --

 

But either way, I think linguistic climate is something very interesting that you really have to live in a city for a while to know.

 

I agree with you. But I want to pose a follow-up question, and will warn you in advance that it's a friendly trap. What cities would you characterize as having a simple, non-complex linguistic environment?

 

The reason that I ask in that manner is that I can't help wondering whether a city might at first appear simple from a language standpoint and then turn out to actually be complex once you have lived there for several years and know the small contours of daily neighborhood life more intimately. And I think this is something along the lines of what you were implying in the sentence I quoted above.

 

Could it be that there are really no linguistically simple cities, only varying degrees of complexity. What do you think?

 

Two years ago I traveled with a Chinese friend to the remote hills of Pu'er Prefecture to visit her 老乡 home town. We stayed with her parents in their home and when we ventured out, always were with native speakers who could help bridge the language gap.

 

Except for a couple larger stores and one or two hotels, I never ran into anyone who spoke 普通话 spontaneously. Everywhere I went, it was dialect. I soon just lumped it all together, wrote it off as "听不懂 land" and stopped worrying. One evening at supper I discussed it with her parents. I had been impressed by the linguistic homogeneity of the place.

 

"Oh no," they quickly said. "The people at the noodle shop this morning were talking 彝族 and the old ladies selling vegetables in the market where we stopped to chat were talking 哈尼族"。And so on, with several different distinctly separate dialects that I had all erroneously thought were one out of ignorance.

 

It kind of made me think.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well, the smartass answer to your question is most small cities in the US that don't have a sizable immigrant population. I have no idea if there are any in China or not. I would assume the parts of China in the north that natively speak very standard Mandarin would also probably be very simple. (From the forums, people often cite 黑龍江)

 

But yes, your point brings up exactly what I was thinking. Before you lived there for a while and actually got to know the demographics of the population and the languages they speak, it's very easy to misjudge the linguistic complexity from a simple visit the first time. You might not notice all the languages used, and you might not know all of the situations of possible language use in the community.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hangzhou:

 

The "postcard" city. Touted as Paradise on Earth, tourists are pretty common here. As such, Mandarin is pretty common in daily life here due to tourists' vastly different places-of-origin. Particularly around West Lake, foreigners will be assumed to only speak English, while other places farther away tend to assume some Mandarin ability (save for a certain InCity Mall's Dairy Queen near Xixi Wetlands). In addition, many shop keepers in the area have come from Hangzhou's surrounding areas, where they natively speak some variation of Wu, complicating matters further, but I am willingly to bet the native language only comes out when a visitor makes a point to speak it, otherwise Mandarin reigns supreme.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

In addition, many shop keepers in the area have come from Hangzhou's surrounding areas, where they natively speak some variation of Wu, complicating matters further, but I am willingly to bet the native language only comes out when a visitor makes a point to speak it, otherwise Mandarin reigns supreme.

 

I think you are right.

 

Last time I was in Hangzhou, I got in a taxi fairly late at night to go from somewhere near the lake back to my hotel. Driver was friendly and we chatted about this and that (using 普通话。) Then his two-way radio crackled and the dispatcher started a conversation with him that was totally alien. I could not make it out, nor could I understand his responses. I couldn't even get the gist of the conversation.

 

Asked him about it a minute later. "Oh, that's Wu. All the drivers in my company speak Wu dialect." Interesting. We drove along and his mobile phone rang. Long conversation in another unknown tongue.

 

When he finished, he turned to me and said, "That was my wife." I asked if they were speaking Wu again. He hesitated and said, "Not exactly. It's related to Wu, but not in such broad use. She and I grew up in the same small town."

 

What I've found over and over in my travels here is that China is a real "patchwork quilt" of dialects and languages. Putonghua/Mandarin has had a uniting effect to some degree, but it's a long way from having homogenized China's habits of daily speech.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...