To learn dialect or not? When your Chinese family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese

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My Chinese Grandma is a lovely woman…who doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese at all.

“Learn some Mandarin Chinese” is a suggestion I offer any foreigner dating someone Chinese, especially if they want to make a great first impression with the family. Even just knowing a handful of phrases makes a difference.

But what happens if you’re like me, someone now fluent in Mandarin Chinese after years of study…with a Chinese family whose local dialect is a completely different language.

My husband John hails from Western Zhejiang Province and his local language is one of China’s Wu Dialects (a family of languages that includes the dialects of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou). There are literally thousands of dialects within this family. Even here in the Hangzhou region, which includes the county where my husband was born and raised, his local dialect differs from the county seat’s local dialect which also differs from the Hangzhou dialect. When John and I visited a friend in Yiwu, a city in Central Zhejiang Province, the local dialect there was completely different as well — and tough for both of us to understand. Still, nothing can beat Wenzhou dialect, considered one of China’s most difficult local languages to comprehend (supposedly, it was used for communications in China during World War II to ensure no enemies — especially Japan — could intercept wartime messages).

How is John’s local language different from Mandarin Chinese? Here are few examples:

Grandmother
– Mandarin Chinese: Waipo
– John’s local dialect: Abu

Child
– Mandarin Chinese: xiao haizi
– John’s local dialect: xia ninguo

Play/have a good time
– Mandarin Chinese: wan
– John’s local dialect: xi

Shoe
– Mandarin Chinese: xie
– John’s local dialect: a

Oneself
– Mandarin Chinese: ziji
– John’s local dialect: xiguo

Hour
– Mandarin Chinese: xiaoshi
– John’s local dialect: zhongtou

You get the idea…it’s an entirely different language!

But unlike Cantonese or Shanghainese, which are local languages in some of China’s biggest business/financial centers (Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai), my husband’s local dialect is only spoken in John’s hometown, a mountainous rural backwater. You won’t see foreign language students flocking to study John’s dialect, nor will doing so boost my resume.

So why bother learning at all?

That was my initial feeling when I first spent time at my husband’s home in the village. I had invested so much of my language study on Mandarin Chinese…and besides, we never stayed at his hometown for more than a few days or a week, providing me few opportunities to learn or practice.

But over the years, I started to find myself hitting a wall — and that wall was named Grandma (Waipo to you Mandarin speakers, Abu out here). See, Grandma doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin Chinese. And to make matters worse, she was born in the Wenzhou area…so her local dialect is clouded with a Wenzhou accent, making it even more of a challenge to understand her. During the summer of 2011, when John left me here at the family home, I passed many uncomfortable moments at Grandma’s house, trying to decipher what she was trying to say — missing out on opportunities to get to know her as person.

That’s the thing: this is the language of people I care about.

Yet it’s more than that, as this author reminded me in an article praising the importance of local dialects in China:

I don’t know where the tipping point was when dialects turned from a communication obstacle to a cherished heritage for Chinese culture. But when I stumbled upon children in my hometown talking to each other in Mandarin while playing on the street, it dawned on me that the days for most dialects are doomed. They would disappear within one generation or two. Possibly within my lifetime, most dialects would go down the road of calligraphy, or worse the abacus, where they would be under academic scrutiny and government protection, but out of the daily use of the common folk.

By learning John’s local dialect, even if it isn’t obviously “useful” or “practical”, I could actually help preserve part of China’s cultural heritage.

Of course, that’s if I ever actually master the language. For now, it’s just a phrase here, a phrase there, and a smattering of words.

But you should have seen the way John’s Grandma beamed at me when I opened her door and finally called her “Abu!” It warmed my soul to know that we were finally communicating for the first time in years. And though I have a long way to go (John still does most of the talking with her) I know in my heart I made the right decision to learn.

Have you ever considered learning an uncommon Chinese dialect? Why or why not?

Update: scratched out the entries under “Hour” above, thanks to the commenters who noted that Mandarin Chinese speakers may use both. Good catch!

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69 thoughts on “To learn dialect or not? When your Chinese family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese

  • February 17, 2014 at 11:54 am
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    Very interesting post! My Chinese family speaks Cantonese so my situation is a bit different as there are millions of Cantonese speakers and study material is easy to find.

    But what I think is common is that we both have the need to learn the dialect to communicate with family members. I feel a bit of an outsider because I can’t understand much Cantonese. I think learning this dialect will be very important me in the future.

    Btw, how do you address your mother- and father-in-law?

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:39 pm
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      Cantonese would definitely be a challenge to learn! But kudos to you for choosing to learn as well!

      In local language, it’s not too different. I can call my father-in-law Baba and mother-in-law Ama.

      Reply
  • February 17, 2014 at 12:43 pm
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    Another interesting post! I faced the same language barrier with my husband’s grandma and the same awkward moments sometimes when no one was around to translate. My husband’s grandma, like yours, couldn’t speak Mandarin – she only spoke Taiwanese. She past away awhile ago and I always wished I had the opportunity to get to know her better.

    Good for you for taking the initiative to learn the language!

    Reply
  • February 17, 2014 at 4:24 pm
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    Although Northeastern dialects are often not considered dialects at all, I sometimes have a hard time understanding my parents in-law. What they speak surely isn’t one of the dialects that is completely different from Mandarin Chinese, but it still has many different words and grammatical structures that are a bit different from standard Mandarin Chinese.
    Only recently, I laughed when I heard them talking and made out the words “哈拉巴 (halaba)” and “嘎拉哈 (galaha)” which both originally derive from Manchurian.
    I think with time there’s a lot one can learn passively, if only you stay in an area where a dialect is spoken for an extended period of time – at least if the dialect is still a little similar to Mandarin Chinese as are many dialects that are considered to be Northern dialects (I understand certain Yunnanese dialects a bit since I’ve stayed in Yunnan for some time). If the dialect is completely different, it might be a lot harder and I guess you’ll have to put a lot of effort into it and learn more actively – especially if you not only want to be able to understand it but also speak it with your family members.
    I thought I’d be able to pick up a little Cantonese here in Shenzhen, but except for the speaker on the subway I usually don’t hear it in day-to-day life and it is like a complete different language – making it hard for me to understand anything at all.

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:43 pm
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      @R, thanks for sharing your experience! I haven’t spent much time in the Northeast, so the words you mentioned hearing your inlaws speak are interesting to me.

      Reply
  • February 17, 2014 at 7:22 pm
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    What dialect is it they are speaking? I think you can learn to speak the dialect by osmosis. Listen, absorb and if you don’t understand a word or phrase, ask . The idea is to be able to communicate on basic level. You don’t need to engage in deep discourse with your in laws. They don’t speak Mandarin at all? Most of us Chinese here learn to speak the others’ dialects by mixing and talking with friends and relatives of different dialectical groups and watching movies and the telly. Many of us can speak at least two or three other dialects apart from our own dialectical mother tongue. You will get the hang of it soon, by listening and trying to speak. The five major Chinese dialects spoken here are Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hailam and Hakka. I am sure you will be fluent in no time if you keep at it. Don’t give up!

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  • February 17, 2014 at 8:05 pm
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    Ha, we Hokkien use the word ‘abu’ for mother! ‘A mah’ for grandmother! Yes, ‘a’ or ‘ooi’ for shoe and ‘gai kee’ for oneself! Dialects can be a devil sometimes, haha. But really, Mandarin is not the mother tongue of the Chinese people. A Chinese person’s mother tongue is his dialect! I, for one, would be sad to see dialects disappear. So, Jocelyn, we would be grateful to you if you could help keep Chinese dialects alive! At least you will be a most welcome unlikely heroine!

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:44 pm
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      Thanks for the comments, Ordinary Malaysian — and especially thanks for the encouragement!

      Reply
  • February 17, 2014 at 11:10 pm
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    Great article. I only learned Mandarin at Yale and lived on Taiwan where they could understand me easily, but I struggled with the Taiwanese language. Check out your examples for the word HOUR. I think you have them reversed. zhongtou is Mandarin or at least that what I was taught.
    I was impressed with your examples and something that Westerners just don’t get.
    Really like your blog!

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:44 pm
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      Thanks Gordon and good catch on “Hour” — I’ve since scratched that one out!

      Reply
  • February 17, 2014 at 11:54 pm
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    China is extremely regional compared to the States! Ironically I didn’t notice this when I was in China but when I’m staying in America.

    I can speak my local dialect (Wuhan) and Mandarin, and it serves me perfectly well in communicating with my Chinese social circles. I speak dialect with childhood or high school friends and Mandarin with college friends. I believe for most Chinese they only need to know Mandarin and their local dialects.

    In your situation, I am thinking it might be a good idea to learn the local dialect! Because if your social circles now include people who only speak this dialect, it might be a big hindrance in communication. Lots of subtle feelings (and humors) in dialects are beautiful, but they usually can’t be captured by Mandarin speakers. I think just like Mandarin, dialects are another media to connect with each other.

    But studying dialects certainly takes time. I wouldn’t try to learn another dialect unless there is a strong reason. However, I think your reasons sound solid. Have fun!

    P.S. I didn’t know Wenzhou dialect was (arguably) used to prevent from deciphering!

    P.P.S. Sometimes I wonder how Officials in ancient China communicated with each other. It must be a pain for North Chinese to speak with Southern Chinese.

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:47 pm
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      @Yabin, thanks for the comment! China really is far more regional than the US…at least if you go around the US, even if there’s a different accent people still can understand one another. It’s fascinating, isn’t it…but yes, you have to wonder how people managed to communicate in the past!

      It definitely is fun learning it. Every time I speak a new phrase, my husband erupts in laughter because he’s not used to hearing local dialect spill out of my mouth. We’re both having a great time!

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 1:14 am
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    Without Hanzi (Chinese characters), Chinese could be divieded into numerous countries like Europe. Phonemic writing system will produce totally different writings from each other due to sounds differences like Jocelyn listed here.

    The day China gets rid of Hanzi, is the day China fall apart into numberous different countries like Europe.

    Second point, according to Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, minor language will inevitably going away due to advance of communication, less usfulness of minor languange in modern world. Even third generation ethnic Koreans in China are losing their language though Korean is still useful internationally. Manchurian language is gone even though they ruled last dynasty.

    Ireland has to educated its mass for celtic language. Yet, no body borthers to speak it in daily life.

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:50 pm
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      @AG, interesting thoughts on Hanzi…I never considered that before.

      Your comment on Celtic language reminds me of this video I watched a few years back. It’s short, really funny and details a Chinese guy who learns the Celtic language and goes to Ireland: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA0a62wmd1A

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 1:36 am
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    I think it would interesting to learn the local dialect! and it would be somewhat useful if you are staying there a while longer.

    Always good to learn something new!

    Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 1:49 am
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    I think it all depends if you want to teach further generations or you just want to communicate with the old one. I understand that dialects, especially from small places, are the things that keep the traditions but sometimes at least for us foreigners it might be little bit pointless. My husband`s native languages are Cantonese after father and Shanghainese after mother, he speaks Mandarin with very specific accent but for those two he speaks like local, knowing even new terms and slangs. His mother now complains why he kept on speaking Shanghainese to her and not practice his Mandarin as it`s `more useful than a slowly dying dialect` but our situation is a bit different – Hong Kong and Shanghai are big cities, living in a small town has different rules.
    Maybe try to learn very simple phrases that can be useful for everyday life but focus mostly on the language you want future generation to speak? 🙂

    I love this article 🙂

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:53 pm
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      Hey Lina, thanks for the comment! Your husband is fortunate to speak two major dialects like a local!

      At this point, it is pretty much about focusing on useful phrases. More a sort of “conversational local dialect” class. If I can learn how to manage basic daily conversations, that would be fantastic.

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 2:54 am
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    Jocelyn,

    You are a good wife!! :). I speak Cantonese and other languages lol.

    Reply
      • February 19, 2014 at 12:40 am
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        I know you 🙂 lol. Keep up the good job! We need more women like you in this world .

        Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 5:06 am
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    Great article!
    I find myself in a similar situation. I just started learning Mandarin, but my boyfriend’s family is from Shanghai, so I ask myself everyday why am I studying if I won’t be able to communicate with them anyway /also, we are in Argentina, both his parents can speak Spanish, although his mother more than his father, so it’s not like we CAN’T speak to each other, but they won’t speak much to me because in their home they will only speak Chinese.
    I would like to speak their dialect, but I can’t find books or anything about it, so I’m just trying to get better at Mandarin.

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 4:57 pm
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      @Camila, it would definitely be harder if you’re in Argentina. But I think if you’re just starting out, it probably makes more sense to tackle Mandarin since that’s the common language that the majority of Chinese can speak and understand.

      BTW, if you search for Shanghainese on some book sites (such as Amazon) you do find some resources for learning…though I can’t vouch for any of the books listed there.

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 6:26 am
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    How fun! Good for you, Joss! And thrilling for Abu! I learned a dialect (Taishanese) growing up as a child of immigrants from Guangdong, and now I’m a life-long learner of Mandarin. So my Chinese language journey is the opposite of yours. When I traveled with my dad to his village for the first time, I’ll never forget how surprised the villagers were that I could speak their language! They viewed me with curiosity, and at arm’s length, until I spoke to them. Then I was no longer an outsider, but one of them. I wrote about this in an essay that was published in The Best American Essays 2001. I might have sent it to you, but I don’t remember.

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    • February 18, 2014 at 4:59 pm
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      How interesting, Lenore! I’ve heard of the Taishan dialect before, it seems to be very common among certain immigrants from Guangdong. I would love to read your essay!

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 9:51 am
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    I know a lot of Chinese people who use zhong tou for hour while speaking Mandarin…
    Really interesting post. My inlaws use one of the Hakka dialects, Hainanhua,Hokkien and Mandarin to communicate depending on whom they are speaking to within the family AND what they are talking about. As for some of the wives, they bring Fuzhou and Cantonese into the.mix as well. Quite confusing for all our children but we keep trying. These dialects are precious! But can so easily be lost especially when the speakers marry outside their dialect. Think it is wonderful you are learning your Abu’s dialect, very special indeed!

    Reply
    • February 18, 2014 at 5:00 pm
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      Wow, Miriam, that is quite a hodge-podge of dialects in your family! Impressive!

      And thanks for pointing out zhongtou, I scratched it from the list above!

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 9:55 am
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    @AG…not quite so with Irish Gaelic! People DO speak it in daily life depending on context and purpose

    Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 10:05 am
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    “zhongtou” (鐘頭) is a perfectly acceptable word in Mandarin for “hour!”

    In fact, that’s what most people in Taiwan say – in Mandarin, not Taiwanese – for “hour”. 小時 is known but “zhongtou” is more popular and “natural”.

    In fact, I’m not fluent in Taiwanese at all (also a totally different language), but a some of these words sound strikingly similar to the way Taiwanese just…sounds. Although they are different words. Even though Taiwanese is a dialect offshoot of southern Fujianese (Minnanyu). (Anybody telling you Taiwanese and Minnanyu are the same is wrong – they probably once were, but now they’ve diverged considerably and, to make them even more different, Taiwanese is full of common loan words from Japanese, many of which originated in English).

    Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 10:10 am
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    And although I am not married into a Taiwanese family, I do want to learn as much Taiwanese as I can because I love Taiwan and revel in how it’s a totally different place from China. I want to absorb what I can of their unique cultural aspects, which include the Taiwanese language. It also helps because I enjoy traveling to parts of Taiwan where the most traditional festivals take place. And old folks, or traditional rural folks who never did pick up much Chinese, in those areas, often the ones who know the most about the festivals in question or are organizing them.

    I’ll never be fluent in it, but a little bit here and there, a basic conversation, maybe a song or two, some phrases I can pepper my Chinese with (the two languages are mixed, often mid-sentence, quite frequently), is what I’m working on.

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    • February 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm
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      Jenna Cody said: “And although I am not married into a Taiwanese family, I do want to learn as much Taiwanese as I can because I love Taiwan and revel in how it’s a totally different place from China.”

      Yeah, and it seems that most 外國人 (foreigner) are strongly pro-Taiwanese independence, and every time I come across a 外國人 advocating de jure independence for Taiwan, I lose a little of my own enthusiasm for it.

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    • February 18, 2014 at 5:01 pm
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      Jenna, that’s fantastic you want to learn Taiwanese!

      And also, thanks for pointing out the issue with “zhongtou”!

      Reply
  • February 18, 2014 at 1:52 pm
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    I admire your energy in trying to learn the dialect. Every little bit you learn will please your husband and his family.

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  • February 19, 2014 at 1:37 am
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    @ Jocelyn. I know only Cantonese (dialect of Canto and Hong Kong). I think you should learn the local dialect as well so that you can be empowered. All the more power to you , girl!!!!!

    Fred

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  • February 19, 2014 at 2:09 am
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    Fred,

    I told you that you’re my bro. We speak the same dialect :). ahahahahhahaha

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  • February 19, 2014 at 6:09 am
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    @Definitely Maybe
    Yes, your observation is absolutely right. Just look at history of Texas and California, or Hawaii. They were all started with innocent white immigrants who looked so benign. But deep down, they hold strong contempt toward the locals. At end, they want to take your land. Once they reach critical mass, they will reveal their true color.

    Now you understand why Qin dynasty, Ming dynasty, and Japan empire aggressively limited foreigners trading place at small port cities. It was illegal for these white traders to cross the borders. They knew trading posts as first step for colonization. Certainly there is racist component in it since such limitation did not apply to fellow East Asians. It is reactionary racism to white racism.

    East Asian countries were only ones successful to resist western colonialism. If people do not learn history, disaster can happens. IC=incorrect politically.

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  • February 19, 2014 at 6:12 am
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    My wife speaks both standard Mandarin and the Wuhan dialect, which is a southwestern Mandarin dialect (and thus more similar to the Sichuan dialect than the Beijing one). Her parents only speak the Wuhan dialect but can understand standard Mandarin which is reasonably intelligible to a Wuhan speaker, so Putonghua it is for me.

    The Taishan dialect of Cantonese is common among Chinese-Americans because most of the railroad workers who came before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed were from Taishan. The second big wave of Chinese immigration to the US was from Fujian and the most recent wave is of more educated demographics who know Mandarin.

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  • February 19, 2014 at 10:11 am
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    “They knew trading posts as first step for colonization.” – regarding IC’s post, that sounds more or less exactly like China’s plan for taking over Taiwan!

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  • February 19, 2014 at 10:35 pm
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    1.) That’s a personal attack, and I’m surprised it’s allowed on this site. It speaks worse of you than of me that you decided to stoop to that level. I don’t feel bad – a comment like that shows who you really are, and it ain’t pretty.

    2.) I’m just speaking to the Taiwanese national sentiment. Look at the polling data – the people generally agree with me.

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    • February 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm
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      Hi Jenna, you are correct in noting that most of us prefer to be independent. However, many of us also realise that 外國人 (foreigners) do not have any genuine interest in protecting Taiwan’s freedom and democracy. For you, it’s all about sticking it to China and perpetuating Western predominance in the world. It would be a tragedy if Taiwan were somehow roped into an anti-China alliance.

      When I listen to a 外國人 advocating Taiwanese independence, I get an impression of how much he/she hates China, as opposed to how much he/she loves Taiwan. And that rubs me the wrong way.

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  • February 20, 2014 at 9:39 pm
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    This is getting a bit off track, but I can understand Definitely Maybe’s sentiment. When I was traveling in Taiwan, I was shocked at how nastily foreigners spoke about Mainland China, while I’ve never heard a Taiwanese speak so negatively. I personally feel, as a white American, that it’s not my place to get too emotional/passionate over these issues because there is still so much I don’t (and perhaps can’t) understand.

    Anyways, I find the topic about learning dialects an interesting one. I live in Hebei Province, in a city somewhat known for its standardized Mandarin. Sometimes I feel lucky I ended up here and marrying a Chinese from this part of China. It does simplify things a bit! There is still a fair bit of local slang for me to wrap my head around, but even without it, I can manage pretty well.

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  • February 21, 2014 at 11:06 am
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    Although I’m late to discussion, I do recall that when I finally admitted to myself about finding Asian men attractive, I felt it was important to learn about the culture , which started me on the path of listening to Asian music, watching Asian dramas (or trying anyways,) and also got me interested in multicultural literature. I often feel its a shame when a culture or language dies away for one reason or another because its similar to losing literacy. I would guess if I should have children, I’ll encourage them to learn languages that I was never given a chance to learn (Yiddish and Hebrew)

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  • February 22, 2014 at 5:41 am
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    @ Sveta. Are you Russian?

    Fred

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  • February 23, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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    Taiwanese is a dialect of Min Nan Hua (a Fujianese language and the language of my ancestors as well as the ancestrial language of millions of other overseas Chinese). More specifically, a dialect of Hokkien. These are the same languages but different dialects (much as Hakka, Hoklo and Hokkien are the same language but different dialects).

    “Taiwanese Hokkien, commonly known as “Taiwanese”, is a variant of Hokkien spoken in Taiwan. Taiwanese is often seen as a Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language. On the other hand, it may also be seen as a language in the Sino-Tibetan family. ”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Taiwan

    The fact is that both the ROC and the PRC consider that there is only one China and both the mainland and Taiwan are part of that larger country (One China Principle) ought to be respected.

    Why do these annoying white folks always try to turn this into a political discussion whenever talking about unrelated stuff about China? I mean, it would be like every time someone brought up the US even when not talking about politics someone from the peanut gallery comes out and would just say “well, that’s great that you like Fords but what about America’s support for the Israeli apartheid state? And what about US spying and occupation in Iraq?”

    There’s a time and a place. Please learn some manners.

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  • February 23, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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    Taiwanese is related to Minnanyu about as closely as American English is related to British English. Mutually intelligible but not the same. And no, a Taiwanese speaker can’t understand a Hakka speaker – they are related but not mutually intelligible.

    I don’t think “the ROC and the PRC both say there is one China” ought to be respected, because the **people of Taiwan** (i.e. the people whose opinions on Taiwan actually matter – the opinion of those in China is not relevant because it is not their country) prefer independence. And plenty of them – not all, but a majority – would like to see the ROC either go the same way, or a minority would like to see it dissolve entirely in favor of a Republic of Taiwan.

    So really, you’re making it sound like this is something “white people” believe. You are wrong. My sentiments echo those of the **Taiwanese people**. Very few believe the ROC’s line. Few people vote for the KMT due to their unification agenda.

    As for learning some manners, but you’re the one making this about “white people” rather than what the Taiwanese actually want.

    @Definitely Maybe – you’re wrong. I care about Taiwan’s future because I care about Taiwan. Is it so hard to believe that a foreigner could live long-term in Taiwan and come to care about it for its own sake? Really? Come on. It’s sad that you have such a narrow view of foreigners. I made a life here because I love it here and I believe in the country and what it stands for.

    What I want for Taiwan is not to stick it to China, what I want is for the Taiwanese people to have the freedom to decide – without threat or fear – what they want for their own country. I prefer independence, but really it’s not my decision. Fortunately most Taiwanese agree with me and would choose independence if they could without threat or fear.

    Western dominance in the world? Haha. I am so angry at my own country for what they’ve done to the world that I left it! I don’t want China to become a world power because their government is not suited to being the major world leader. But I don’t think the USA deserves that title any longer, either. I would like to see there be no one superpower, no one leader, with countries on more equal footing than they are now. A pipe dream, but still a dream.

    @R Zhao – you’ve never heard a Taiwanese be as negative about China, or as passionate about independence or their country as foreigners can be? Talk to more Taiwanese then, especially down south. The passion runs deep! I learned most of my best Taiwanese swears listening to southern Taiwanese talk about their country and China! My feelings on the issue pale in comparison. “We should keep silent” is what people say when they’re trying to push inconvenient opinions under the rug.

    In short, I am not sorry I said what I said about Chinese economic colonialism over Taiwan. It’s true.

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  • February 23, 2014 at 8:53 pm
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    And for what it’s worth, I don’t hate China. I wouldn’t be following this blog if I did.

    I have a lot of criticisms (and good things to say too – Xinjiang, minority people in Guizhou, the food when it’s safe, the various cultures that have been preserved, the history – especially the literary and artistic traditions, the language, and the people are about as friendly as people anywhere in the world) and I can’t stand the PRC government but I don’t hate China.

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  • February 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm
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    “So really, you’re making it sound like this is something “white people” believe. ”

    Sadly this is as delusional as the rest of your posts filled with factual inaccuracies and political and ethnic provocations. I realize that you are not capable of thinking outside of your society and the blatant anti-China rhetoric it imbues its people. But at least try to maintain a semblance of civility and not drag this discussion about ethnic Chinese dialects into your misinformed rants.

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  • February 24, 2014 at 1:54 pm
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    This delusional American claims that someone said Taiwanese and Min Nan “are the same” dialects but no one said any such thing. Min Nan is a language while Taiwanese is a dialect. So she can’t even understand that basic distinction which shows how little she knows about basic linguistics.

    The Min Nan dialects are the same language but different dialects much as British English and American English are the same language (English, Duh!) but different dialects. Also Appalachian English and Standard American English are obviously the same language but different dialects.

    As to Taiwanese opinion, opinion polls differ on wording but many polls show that overall, independence support is a minority view with status quo and unification to be more popular combined. Much of the Taiwanese news media is rather brainwashed by western inciting of anti China sentiment and I suspect many of those in Taiwan are incited to paranoia and fear of mainland China.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2014 at 12:26 am
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    Hi, I found your blog through random googling. Can I ask what resources you are using to learn Wu Chinese? I’m an American who used to speak Shanghainese as a child, and I want to start speaking it again.

    Reply
    • March 26, 2014 at 10:11 am
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      Helen, I haven’t really been using any resources — mainly just listening and then repeating phrases or words I hear (and having people correct me with my pronunciation or tone). Also, realize that Wu Chinese is a family of dialects, not any specific dialect itself. The dialect I’m learning is different from Shanghainese and no such resources exist for it. However if you search on Amazon, you will find some books on Shanghainese and you can try one of those titles.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  • April 24, 2014 at 9:10 pm
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    Jocelyn, I have been a long time lurker on here, but never posted before, and after seeing this article I just had to write something!

    I feel like we’re living parallel lives. I am also a Caucasian midwestern girl, from Indiana. I met my husband in Chicago, and we moved to Shanghai (where you’ve also lived) a year and half ago.

    But here’s where it gets really interesting. My husband is also from a small town in the Zhejiang province. His laojia is near Qingtian, but even more rural, think stone walls and dirt floors. His dialect is also similarly incomprehensible and has roots in the Wu dialect….his father actually speaks Wenzhouhua!

    He says “Abu” is grandmother in his dialect too! And as far as I can tell, if you want to say “I don’t know” in his dialect, you say “feshuodinou”. I have no clue if the spelling is even close.

    Small world, huh?

    Reply
    • April 25, 2014 at 8:56 pm
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      Hey Mars, Wow, we really do live parallel lives! Actually, here’s another link…my husband’s maternal grandparents both have family links to Qingtian. They lived in Qingtian when they were younger and when the Japanese invasion hit China migrated to NW Zhejiang where we are now. Totally small world!

      Reply
  • April 28, 2014 at 11:10 pm
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    Our parents came from Hoisan. Many of their generations have past away. I and siblings do not speak the dialect nor bother learning Manderin. Some of us have also racially intermarry. I for one always have love of the Russian heart and language!

    Reply
  • June 15, 2014 at 11:14 am
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    Zhongtou is actually a loanword from the northern dialects of Wu Chinese. Most people think it is a native Mandarin word but it is not. Since the bulk of the new vernacular Mandarin Chinese literature then were written by native Wu and Shanghainese speakers, a significant amount of today’s Mandarin Chinese vocabulary come from Wu Chinese via these literary works. The words and usages have become so well adopted into Standard Mandarin, that most speakers assume they are indigenous to Mandarin, rather than cognates of Wu.

    As for my background, I am a Shanghainese-American with most of my ancestry from northeastern Zhejiang with some ancestry from Southern Jiangsu. I grew up speaking Shanghainese as my only language till I was four or five even though I was born and raised in the US. As a result, I can speak Shanghainese very much like a local without any accent. I can understand the northern Wu dialects of northern Zhejiang to a large degree, but not the same as I would understand Suzhou dialect, which is the closest major dialect to Shanghainese. As an example, listening to Suzhou dialect for me is like listening to someone speaking in Southern American English, while listening to someone speaking in Ningbo dialect or Shaoxing dialect is like trying to understand someone from England or Scotland.

    Reply
  • September 13, 2014 at 9:42 pm
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    Do you have podcasts on the Wenzhou dialect? I am a Wenzhou by dialect but can’t speak a word and want to learn the language before it ‘disappears’.

    Reply
    • September 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm
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      Liz, sorry but I have no podcasts on Wenzhou dialect. Good luck in your endeavors and hope you do find a way to study it!

      Reply
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  • June 28, 2015 at 8:30 pm
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    Yunnan is a place plenty of different ethnic groups, different languages and dialects. I’m staying in Kunming, the biggest city of the province and when I came here for the first time, I was certain that everybody will understand my Mandarin.
    Well… Let’s say, that being certain about anything is quite stupid 😉
    Anyway, I really wanted to learn some Kunming dialect. It’s based on Mandarin, but I couldn’t understand even simple words or expressions. And you know what? I didn’t really have any chance to learn it. ALL of my Chinese teachers here were as foreign as I – I mean, what more can Harbin or Wuhan Chinese know about Yunnanese dialects than me?
    Don’t know why, but all of Chinese I made friends with were also non-yunnanese, so I couldn’t learn more than few words.
    Now I have Kunminghese husband and in-laws. They always speak in Kunming dialect; only if they speak directly to me, they use Mandarin. They know it quite well, so I’m in better situation than you. I’ve started learning, but it’s quite hard, I mix it with Mandarin so often! Funny fact: I help my Chinese husband improve his Mandarin 😀
    So now a foreigner is learning Kunming dialect and teaching Mandarin and her Chinese husband is teaching Kunminghese and learnig decent Mandarin 😀

    Reply
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  • May 16, 2017 at 7:54 pm
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    Hey!

    I’ve been scouring the internet for some sources about Wenzhounese as I will be teaching English in the area. I don’t know much about China, but it seems to be in Ouhai district…

    Do you have any vocab lists or anything? Even if it is a vocab list of mandarin words to wenzhounese words?!

    I speak and read Japanese, so characters are okay too as long as I can figure out the pronunciation. Please help!

    Reply
  • October 5, 2017 at 1:22 pm
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    Growing up, I learned Cantonese, but my mom and her side of my extended family all speak Teochew very well. I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t speak it, though I can understand a little. I could speak Mandarin but I’ve probably lost most of it by now

    Reply
    • October 13, 2017 at 12:42 pm
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      Thank you for sharing hai. I can imagine how you must feel when you’re together with family, since it’s how I feel when I’m around family who speak a dialect I don’t know.

      Reply
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