The Best Chinese Dialects to Learn
Linguistic Map Of China
The Chinese Language: Dialects and Accents
In mentioning the language spoken in China today, most people only think of spoken Mandarin or Standard Chinese, written Chinese characters, and not much more. This is a misconception. The Chinese language is a collection of several 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 the 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.
The Best Chinese Dialects Worth Learning
Every year a great 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:
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. By 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 cannot 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 that 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 videos below have samples from Chinese Mandarin, Wu (Shanghainese), Cantonese, Minnan, Hakka, and the Fuzhou dialect.
A Cantonese Lesson
Taiwanese Subdialect of Minnan
Hakka Language Lesson
Shanghainese Basic Greetings
Mixture of Putonghua (Mandarin) and Other Chinese Dialects
Which Chinese dialect would you like to learn?
Best Chinese Dialects to Learn
Another Chinese Mandarin Related Hub
- Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan
Learning a language in a foreign country is the best and fastest way to improve listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Learning Chinese Mandarin in Taiwan greatly improved my proficiency.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn