photo of Shanghai pudong skyline
If you are in Shanghai, you will hear a lot of Shanghaiese, but perhaps not a lot of Mandarin. The locals heavily favor their own dialect.

There is not just one Chinese Language

Summer is almost here and many students of Mandarin Chinese will go to China or Taiwan to do a summer intensive language course. It is quite common for students to step off of the plane and then feel disappointed that they cannot understand any of the local Chinese people. Perhaps these students do not understand Mandarin Chinese as well as they thought they did. Just as likely though, there is another culprit: dialects.

Most students arrive on their first day of Mandarin class knowing that there is a difference between Mandarin and Cantonese. There are actually many, many different dialects spoken in China. We use the English word Mandarin generally as a translation of  the word 普通话 (Putonghua), the official language of the People’s Republic of China. 国语 (Guoyu) and 汉语 (Hanyu) can also be translated as Mandarin. Mandarin or Putonghua is the official language of China and Taiwan*, but in reality every city has its own dialect.

They are Not Just Dialects of Standard Chinese

The word dialect is actually a very misleading term when we talk about the spoken languages of China. It implies that there is mutual intelligibility between the different dialects, and this is very often not the case. A better term is topolect. A long discussion of what a topolect is and why we should use that term instead of the word dialect is here. In short, a topolect is a language of a particular region of China.  Every city or area you go to has its own topolect. Some of the more well-known ones are Sichuanese, Shanghaiese, Hakka, and Cantonese.

Some of these topolects are more closely related to each other than others, but they are not necessarily dialects of Mandarin. They could be just as different from each other as English and Spanish. In theory, all educated people in China speak Mandarin as well as their native topolect. Especially outside the big cities however, this is not always the case. If travelers who are proficient in Mandarin have trouble in China, it is often because they  are speaking to people who do not speak Mandarin fluently.

Keep the Topolects in Mind as You Travel

Even in big cities, proficient Mandarin speakers might have some trouble. Shanghai and Chengdu are two popular cities for foreign travelers. Local Shanghaiese love their local topolect. They speak it at every opportunity, even if it irritates their fellow countrymen and women. Chengdu loves Sichuanese so much that they even discussed making it one of the languages for announcements in their metro system.

The many topolects of China can make life difficult for any traveler in the country, even if they are Chinese themselves. Keep in mind that if your Mandarin skills are not getting you as far as you would like, it might be because those around you are not speaking it!

Have you had any frustrating experiences because of the many topolects (dialects) of China? Share in the comments!

*Taiwanese usually use the term Guoyu

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