The Best Chinese Dialects to Learn

Linguistic Map Of China

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Chinese Dialects

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The Chinese Language: Dialects and Accents

In mentioning the language spoken in China today, most people only think of spoken Mandarin, written Chinese characters, and not much more. This is a misconception. In fact, the Chinese language is a collection of a number of regional linguistic varieties or dialects which are mutually unintelligible due to pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar differences. Mandarin is just one of the varieties. It is important, of course, because it is the official language of both China and Taiwan as well as being one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

What, then, is the Chinese language, and what are its dialects? The Chinese language is nothing more than a collection of the regional varieties of language spoken primarily throughout eastern and southeastern Asia. The regional varieties of the Chinese language include the following seven major dialects: Mandarin Chinese or "putonghua" (the common language); Wu or Shanghainese; Yue or Cantonese; Minnan or Southern Min; Hakka or Kejiahua (the guests' language); Gan or the language of Jiangxi Province; and Xiang or the language of Hunan and Sichuan Provinces. Other important dialects include: Minbei or Northern Min; Fuzhouese or the language of Fuzhou City; and Jinyu or the language of Shanxi Province. It is interesting to note that although a Shanghainese speaker will probably have difficulty understanding a Minnan speaker, both speakers will be able to read and understand the meanings of written Chinese characters.

In addition to the various dialects, there are subdialects of each dialect which differ by accent or pronunciation. Take Mandarin, for instance. The speech of people in northern China, north of the Yangtze River, differs in pronunciation from people in southern China, south of the Yangtze River as well as the people in southwestern China. These differences are similar to differences in accents among people in the northern, southern, and mid-western states in the United States. Within a subdialect you will also find differences in pronunciation. Mandarin speakers from Beijing and Tianjin don't speak the same just like a Boston and New York accent are very different.

Linguistic Map of Chinese Dialects

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A Cantonese Lesson

Taiwanese Subdialect of Minnan

Hakka Language Lesson

Shanghainese Basic Greetings

Mixture of Putonghua (Mandarin) and Other Chinese Dialects

The Best Chinese Dialects Worth Learning

Each year a large number of persons from various countries go to China, Taiwan, and other Southeast Asian countries primarily for tourism, business, study, or teaching. In truly getting the most out of your stay in China and Southeast Asia, I would recommend learning at least some of these important dialects:

1. Mandarin:

Mandarin or "putonghua" is the official language of China and Taiwan, and it is used in business, by the government, and by schools. There are 870 million speakers throughout all of China and 25 million other Mandarin speakers in different countries around the world. Native speakers of other dialects all learn Mandarin as a second language or dialect in schools. Knowing Mandarin, you would be able to carry on at least a simple conversation with most Chinese in China or Southeast Asia.

2. Yue or Cantonese:

Cantonese is an important dialect spoken both inside and outside of China. There are about 70 million Cantonese speakers today. Inside China, they reside in Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces and on Hainan, Hong Kong, and Macau (Aomen). Outside of China, you will find a lot of Cantonese speakers in Singapore, Malaysia, and the older China Towns in western countries like The United States, England, and Canada. Most of the older Chinese residents of Hong Kong can only speak English and Cantonese. If you are visiting there and can not speak English well, it would be to your advantage to learn some Cantonese.

3. Minnan or Southern Min:

Southern Min is also an important dialect spoken both inside and outside of China. It is comprised of the major subdialects of Xiamen City in Fujian Province, Taiwanese, Hokkien, and Teochew. There are about 50 million speakers of Southern Min today. Within China they live in southern Fujian Province, Guangdong Province, and southern Hainan, Outside of mainland China, you will find more than 20 million Taiwanese speakers on Taiwan , Hokkien speakers in Malaysia and Singapore, and Teochew speakers in Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong. The Taiwanese subdialect is politically important for the Taiwanese on Taiwan who are seeking independence. Since Taiwanese is spoken in many other countries around the world, you certainly will have the chance to use it if you learn it.

4. Hakka or Kejia:

The Hakka dialect is spoken by about 40 million people today inside and outside of China. It is one of the oldest dialects and has its origins from northern China. The dialect has developed through time by the migrations of the Hakka people to Guangdong Province and then to various places around the world. Within China today, you can find Hakka speakers in Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Hunan, and Sichuan Provinces. Hakka speakers also reside in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Abroad, the Hakka are living in many countries around the world. Although many of the younger Hakka speak Mandarin in preference to Hakka, you will be able to use this language with most of the older people.

5. Wu or Shanghainese:

Wu or Shanghainese is spoken in the city of Shanghai and also in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. There are about 90 million speakers of Wu and almost all of them live in China. In addition to the millions of Shanghainese speakers, there are millions of other Wu speakers who speak the subdialects of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Ningbo, and other major cities. If you are going to visit or spend some time living in Shanghai, a little knowledge of the Wu dialect will help you to get closer to the native people.

If you are going to travel around other areas of China, there are certainly other dialects which are worth-while learning. These dialects, for example, might include Gan, Xiang, Jinyu, Fuzhouese, and Minbei. If Mandarin is the most important dialect and most people can speak it, why, then, do I say you should learn other dialects? Remember this. Mandarin is not the first language or dialect of many Chinese people. If you can speak their first or native dialect, it will be easier for you to understand them and win their friendship. On my trip to Taiwan at the end of November of 2014, I made use of the Minnan which I knew so well years ago and the limited Hakka that I know. I also learned some basic conversational Cantonese which I used during my trip to Hong Kong in April of 2015.

The video on the right has extracts from Chinese Mandarin, Wu (Shanghainese), Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka, and Gan.



Fuzhou Dialect

Best Chinese Dialects to Learn

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© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn

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Comments 53 comments

Luther Deese 4 years ago

Paul - Over the past 20 years immigrants from Fuzhou have been flooding into the US. Every town, village, and city in the US has 1 or more Chinese buffets owned and staffed by people from Fuzhou. The dialect is the hardest I've ever encountered. I'd wager that there are fewer than 50 westerners in the world that speak it -- even the Mormons don't speak it. I'm concerned that we may have 1000s of possible agents here that can't be effectively monitored. The FBI is aware but overworked already with terrorists and organized crime. What to do?


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Luther, You are absolutely correct. The Fuzhou dialect of Chinese is well-worth learning to combat terrorism and organized crime. The problem, I think, is that not many people travel to Fuzhou Province, and a lot can't tell the difference between Cantonese, Minnan, Wu, and the Fuzhou dialect. Until most people in the States recognize the present and future threat of China to our national security, we will have this problem with awareness of Fuzhou and other dialects.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Luther, it should be Fujian Province. Fuzhou is a major city in Fujian Province. Sorry for the error.


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Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma

I have wanted to take a class in Mandarin Chinese. I think it would be an interesting language to learn although I've heard it can be quite difficult for an American to grasp.

We should all learn at least one foreign language.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Pamala, for many Americans Mandarin is a difficult language to grasp because it is tonal and uses characters for writing. Although the Pinyin Romanization for spoken words is becoming popular among young people as a mode of texting, you still need to learn characters in order to read a newspaper. If you are dedicated and want to learn, I'm sure you'll do well in any Mandarin class you take.


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alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

Yikes, and here I thought Mandarin was all I needed to learn to get around in China -- it's a tough enough language, without having to contend with four others. But I love learning about languages, so thanks for this info. Voting this Up and Useful. SHARED.


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Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Wow, five dialects worth learning. I don't know if I could even handle one! This is a very eye opening hub.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Alocsin,

Thanks for reading, your good comments, and especially sharing. Cantonese or Hokkien are especially useful dialects to know if your are spending a lot of time in Southeastern China and Southeast Asia.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Natashalh,

Thanks for reading my hub and your comments. I greatly appreciate it.


Wesley Meacham profile image

Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

Paul this is a great article. While traveling through China with my girlfriend who is Chinese there have been many instances that I've witnessed where she was unable to communicate with other Chinese people because of differences between reginional dialects. She speaks a couple of subdialects of Hubei as well as Mandarin. But knowing Mandarin is not enough to communicate with other people in different areas. This is especially true with older people. We had a guided tour in an old town in Hunan province. Our guide was an older lady and though my girlfriend did her best to translate for me she gave up after a while because she simply didn't understand the woman.

Voting up and sharing.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Wesley,

Thanks for reading, sharing, and your insightful comments. Years ago I started learning Taiwanese in Taiwan when I realized that a lot of people, especially older people, weren't understanding my Mandarin.


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SotD and Zera 4 years ago

This is a really cool article. I knew that there were several Chinese languages, but not that so many were so prominent (Westerners really do tend to focus on Mandarin and Cantonese). Thanks for the education!

-Zera


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Zera,

Thanks for reading my article and your great comments! If I ever lived in China for any length of time, I would try to learn the local dialect of where I am staying. People have been more friendly to me when I speak to them in their first language rather than a second language.


Adama Gidado 4 years ago

My little sister is now taking Chinese in high school. I wish they offered this language when I was in high school. I just know it will be a very useful tool. Great hub, very informative.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Adama,

Thanks for reading my hub and your encouraging comments. I was lucky to have the U.S. Navy send me to study Chinese Mandarin many years ago.


Spongy0llama profile image

Spongy0llama 3 years ago from Canada

Wow, I didn't realize there was so much more to Chinese than Mandarin and Cantonese. I should know that languages can have a terribly confusing number of dialects since I moved to southern Germany and came into contact with several, some of which nearly mutually unintelligible!

I've always been intimidated with Asian languages. Maybe I'll give Mandarin a go once I've made enough progress with Russian :)


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Spongyollama,

Thanks for reading this article and I appreciate your comments. I think you would really enjoy learning Mandarin. The grammar is much simpler than Russian, but the real challenge is in learning to read and write the characters. Good luck in your future studies!


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rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Very useful and interesting hub. I remember my son-in-law telling me that even in Chinese it is difficult for 2 people knowing different dialects to understand each other. And so is the case with sub dialects within a common dialect.

Since most people understand Mandarin Chinese, it would be useful to learn this dialect to be able to converse in most places in China, I believe.

Thanks for sharing this useful info, Paul.

Voted up, useful and shared.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Hi rajan,

Thanks for reading and commenting on one of my favorite hubs. If you want to learn spoken Chinese, you must start with Mandarin because everyone learns that in school. Then, depending on where you live or stay in China, you will gain a lot by learning the local dialect. I imagine this is the same in India. Am I correct? I appreciate you voting up this hub and sharing it.


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 3 years ago from India

Yes you are absolutely right when you say that China is getting important and more and more people are going to china for business and travel. It was a very well written hub with lots of information about Chinese accent in various parts of China.. voting it up and sharing on fb.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

I'm happy you liked my hub on Chinese dialects. China and Chinese dialects has been one of my passions most of my life. I find the subject very fascinating. Thanks for voting this hub up and sharing it on fb.


Aries Firth 3 years ago

Good job!Besides,as a Chinese student,there's something about dialect I don't understand.Thanks for your hub.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Aries,

Thanks for reading and commenting on this hub. When I started studying Chinese and Chinese Mandarin many years ago, I wasn't aware of Chinese dialects until I got to Taiwan. I'm happy you liked this article and hope that it helps you as a Chinese student. Your favorable comment is also appreciated.


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midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

Being Chinese, I connected with this immediately. I speak a pidgin version of Minnan.......Hokkien as it is called here in Singapore, as well as Putonghua. In these days, these are indeed the best dialects to learn!! A great hub, Paul, which I share.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Michelle,

In looking at your surname and some of your hubs, I knew that you were Chinese. I'm glad you liked this hub and I appreciate your great comments. When I started learning Chinese, I studied Mandarin or Putonghua first, and then picked up the Taiwanese version of Minnan when I lived in Taiwan. I have always been very interested in Chinese dialects. Thank you very much for sharing this hub.


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WalterPoon 3 years ago from Malaysia

Paul Kuehn, you put me to shame as a Chinese, but I learned a lot about various Chinese dialects from this hub. Ya, Chinese of different dialects use the same written Chinese characters, after they were forced to do so by Qin Shi Huang (r. 221 BC – 210 BC) who did away with all the regional scripts to form one language for all of China. Interesting thing is he could force people to use the same written script, but he could not do away with regional dialects.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Walter Poon,

Thank you very much for reading this hub and I really appreciate your interesting comments about Qin Shi Huang. I know from my Chinese history that he unified China, but I wasn't aware that he did away with all of the regional scripts. In my study of the Taiwanese subdialect I have come across characters not found in modern Chinese which are used for representing Taiwanese sounds. I believe the same thing also exists for characters to represent Cantonese.


WalterPoon profile image

WalterPoon 3 years ago from Malaysia

Paul Kuehn, you are right. I saw a Cantonese word in the 老夫子 cartoon, where "don't have" is written as 冇 (obviously derived from 有).

I never learned Chinese in school. I did 3 months of night classes after my Form 5 (while waiting for my results) and another 3 months after my Form 6 but obviously not enough. The interesting thing is that people here in Malaysia can read the Chinese newspapers and novels with just 6 years of Chinese school education, but most of those who study up to Form 3 in the English and Malay medium can hardly read the English and Malay newspapers. I wonder why.

Your Chinese must be better than mine. I speak broken Mandarin, but not Cantonese or Hokkien (Minnan), although if someone talks in Cantonese or Hokkien, I can USUALLY understand, LOL. I am Teochew. My wife's father is also Teochew, but her mother is Hakka. I don't understand Hakka at all.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Walter Poon,

Thank you very much for the interesting comments about your language background in Malaysia. I hear a lot of Teochew here in Bangkok, but it is a lot different from the Taiwanese I learned. I'm lucky if I can catch 20-30 percent of what is said in Teochew.


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StephSev108 3 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Awesome hub! Thank you. I voted up.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

StepSev108,

Thank you very much for reading this hub and your great comments.


My Cook Book profile image

My Cook Book 3 years ago from India

It is a very informative hub i must say. I had a good time reading this knowledge hub, great work!


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

My Cook Book,

Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. I'm happy you found it informative and good reading.


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thelyricwriter 3 years ago from West Virginia

Paul, very informative article. I never knew that the Chinese had so many languages, very interesting. You've provided a great resource of information. Voted up, useful, interesting, and shared on FB.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

thelyricwriter,

Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. China has so many languages probably due to its mountainous geography especially along the eastern coast of the country. I'm happy you find the article interesting and useful. Thanks for sharing.


Jason Matthews profile image

Jason Matthews 3 years ago from North Carolina

Great hub! I am currently working in the Henan Province and I am learning Mandarin. It's very tough!


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Jason,

How long have you been working in Henan? Are you teaching English there? How long have you been learning Mandarin? You probably won't need any other dialect unless you go to southeastern China. Yes, learning Mandarin is tough. I've been studying and working with the language since 1967 and still am learning new things every day. Good luck in your studies!


Steve H Linkou NVY 3 years ago

Paul,

You've been hacked! Change your email password. It's the old airport stranding scam.


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JPSO138 3 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

In our country many people are Chinese and I really see the importance of learning the language. But I do really find it hard since non in our family speaks the language. Going to a Chinese school is great but having someone in the family who speaks the language would be an advantage. Very informative hub... up for this!


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

JPSO138 Thank you very much for reading and commenting on this hub. Yes, I know it is hard to learn a language if you have no one to speak it to.


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

I am a dabbler in linguistics and this is a very thorough, informative article on the different languages and dialects in China, as well as the most important languages worth learning. I was surprised to learn that President Cory Aquino's homeland, Xiamen, speaks Min rather than one of the two important Chinese dialects. The video is very helpful, too. Chinese, regardless of the dialect or language, truly has a musical quality to it.


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Paul Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

&grand old day Thank you very much for your comment! I wasn't aware that your President was a Filipina-Chinese. I'm happy you liked this post!


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Paul Kuehn 23 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

&Micha Boettiger I'm happy you like my dialect map. I have always been fascinated with Chinese dialects, and learned Taiwanese out of necessity after I got married. If it is necessary to learn a dialect to communicate, you will find the stamina to learn it. Thanks for your comments.


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DreamerMeg 14 months ago from Northern Ireland

Do many people speak ALL the dialects or languages of China? In my university, students get an opportunity to visit China for a few weeks or months as part of their studies. They learn Chinese as part of that visit but I do not know which dialect, probably Mandarin.


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sujaya venkatesh 14 months ago

informative hub


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Paul Kuehn 14 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

&DreamerMeg Excuse my delay in answering your comment. Mandarin is the national dialect or language which all people either know by birth or learn in school. There are a considerable number of people who speak the other dialects and I should include this in my hub if I haven't already.


vincent 7 months ago

in the image at the top, how come the south east (labeled green) dialects are labeled korean?


Vincent 7 months ago

in the image at the top, how come the east (labeled dark green) dialects are labeled korean?


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Paul Kuehn 7 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

The dark green areas are in Jilin Province and they are in the bordering areas with North Korea. Thank you for your comments.


peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 4 months ago from Home Sweet Home

Hi Paul

I am from Malaysia too

My dad and mom are teochew but we speak broken dialect because mom is a pure Nyonya ( baba)

So, our teochew is mix of Nyonya and teochew

However, my friends said that I speak Hokkien not teochew.

Which my hubby is Hokkien.

So, now I am mixed up.

My dialects are like Rojak- mixture of teochew , hokkien and BabaNyonya


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Paul Kuehn 4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Peach purple, I have heard a lot of Teochew in Thailand, but have never heard BabaNyonya and Rojak. Thanks for sharing your comments!


pinto2011 profile image

pinto2011 2 months ago from New Delhi, India

Chines language has always incited my feelings. To get a deeper insight into it is a pleasure. Nice research.


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Paul Kuehn 2 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

@pinto2011 , Thank you very much for your comments. I am very happy you liked this article. Do you plan on studying any of the Chinese dialects?

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