1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Chinese
  4. >
  5. Dialects of Chinese


Dialects of Chinese

When Chinese finally came out on duolingo, I got really excited. However, as I was doing the course, I realized that Chinese isn't just one specific language. There are many different dialects, such as Mandarin, the language duolingo has, and Cantonese. It's just a suggestion, but do you think that Duolingo should add dialects like Cantonese, and maybe relabel Chinese as Mandarin? I come from Hong Kong, a city full of Cantonese speakers, and I would love to talk to my relatives. However, no language learning site out there has Cantonese as a language to learn, and I'm a little rusty on my Cantonese skills, so I think that Duolingo should be the first language learning site to teach Cantonese. I know that Cantonese is a little harder for people who have no experience with it at all since it does have 6 tones and sounds no other language has, but it would be nice if duolingo added that.

March 8, 2018



Well, first, they definitely shouldn't call it "Mandarin" - that word itself is absurd. It came from the Portuguese in Macau who distinguished between the locals, who spoke Cantonese, and the Qing Dynasty officials, who spoke something else. Those officials they called "Mandare" or "Commanders" and their language was called "Mandarin." But Mandarin as a construct is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Chinese bureaucracy. It was a strict policy in the Qing Dynasty that no official be allowed to hold office in their home province, for fear of them setting up their own rival dynasty. So officials were assigned to stations in different locations, and thus always spoke a different dialect from the locals. There were Cantonese officials in the Qing bureaucracy, but not in Guangdong. They were posted to places in the North, while northerners were sent to the south.

In reality, these "Mandare" in Macau could have been speaking any number of non-Cantonese dialects, including Min, Xiang, Wu, or Gan. Who knows. The Portuguese didn't. They just lumped it all together. The term Mandarin really doesn't describe Chinese, but instead describes western ignorance of Chinese, and how that shaped our perceptions of the language, and the people.

What Duolingo is teaching is Putonghua. It's a dialect of Chinese constructed by the current government in the 1940s and 50s, based broadly on Beijing dialect. It's name means "Common Speech" and was meant to be a lingua franca of China. There are a number of dialects of Chinese, which are meaningfully distinct, and you would struggle to understand, but fall under the broad "Mandarin/Putonghua" umbrella, for example Sichuanese.

As to whether or not Cantonese is a dialect or a language, that is open to debate. Cantonese is very close to the Classical Chinese of the Tang Dynasty, and in a sense, Putonghua has more influences from outside of Chinese, having been influenced by a number of northern Tungusic languages, most notably Manchu. So I feel it is important to see Cantonese not as a separate sinitic language, but instead as a dialect of Chinese, which preserves the speech of the Tang Dynasty, just as the Wu Dialect in the Yangtzee River Delta preserves much of the early Ming Dynasty Chinese. That all of these together form a single linguistic continuity is important. On the other hand, the differences between Cantonese and Putonghua are in many ways analogous to Russian and Ukrainian, or Spanish and Portuguese.

I definitely could see there being a Cantonese module some day. There is already Creole Haitian in the incubator, and Catalan is already out for Spanish, so there is precedent for adding dialects or closely related languages. In the mean time, though, don't worry. A strong understanding of one version of Chinese, no matter which one it is, will help you to learn any of the others. For dialects other than Cantonese, there are very very few learning materials, even in Chinese. So ultimately, you have to travel to the area, and meet the people who speak that dialect. Some are harder to find than others. For example, many people in Shanghai today do not speak Shanghainese (wu dialect) because they are transplants, while many old Shanghainese speakers today live throughout the world.

Learning Chinese dialects is a fun adventure because you have to get out there, meet people, and struggle through the endless game of "how do you say this? I say it this way!" It's a game you will hear the Chinese playing with each other any time they travel and encounter new people. Discovering the accents and dialects of China is really getting to the heart of what a vast and fascinating place China really is.


Fascinating read. Thank you.

So I feel it is important to see Cantonese not as a separate sinitic language, but instead as a dialect of Chinese

"Important" in the sense that Chinese (writ large) speaker perceive it this way, and it is useful to be fully conversant with this view and the reasons for it / because the linguist's tool box mutual intelligibility standard can itself be viewed as some sort of Western misunderstanding/imperialism / or you're perfectly happy to keep both viewpoints in your mind, each applicable in their own domains?


Perhaps a clearer statement of what I mean is that I would see two different, but related languages as having originated in a third, older language. For example, Swedish and Norwegian both originated from an earlier Gothic Language, not one from the other. In the case of Cantonese and Putonghua, they are each part of a single linguistic continuum, rather than an equal divergence from a single common ancestor language. Cantonese is in many ways more "archaic" just as American English preserves many archaic aspects of English no longer found in British English, but they remain the same language.

And actually, the way that American English and British English diverged is very similar to the way Cantonese and Putonghua diverged, in that Tang dynasty settlers who made Guangdong part of China remained relatively distant and isolated, and were not exposed to the frequent northern invasions that dominate Chinese history after the fall of the Northern Song, just as American settlers were not exposed to the same persistent European influence that the speakers in England encountered.


Well, I'm an anthropologist and historian, rather than a strict linguist, so I see it as important in terms of understanding broader historical continuities. The question of mutual intelligibility is an interesting one, because the old semiotic distinction between "langue" and "parole" are forced into particularly stark contrast. There is definitely a difference between Cantonese and Putonghua in terms of pronunciation, and this can be pretty tricky, to the point where I can't always understand Cantonese, and can't think up things to say in Cantonese. But on a conceptual level, Cantonese uses mostly the same concepts and syntax, so when I understand or can guess the ways the pronunciation has shifted, then the language becomes more or less interchangeable. If you've studied Classical Chinese, the difference is even less striking, since the consonant endings and monosyllabic grammar structures of Cantonese seem far less exotic.

So if it is spoken, Cantonese sounds very different. If it was written, I'm not sure I know enough about the nuances of Cantonese to recognize the difference. There are certain phrases that are favored in Cantonese. So is it mutually intelligible? Hard to say, it is and it isn't.

By that same account, is Chaucer's Middle English a different language from English today? Is it mutually intelligible? From an historical point of view, and a cultural point of view, it represents an singular step or development in a greater continuity, and that's what I think is important in understanding the relationship between "Chinese" "Cantonese" and "Putonghua."


Are you saying that you can't tell the difference between written Putonghua and written Cantonese? If so, you may not have seen "real" written Cantonese.

In formal or semi-formal situations, most Cantonese speakers write in a standard form of Chinese which is very similar to Putonghua and not Cantonese.

But in casual use and especially on the Internet, many of us write what we speak and it's hard not to notice the difference.

For example, a simple sentence like "食咗飯未呀?" may not be readily understood by Putonghua speakers without any exposure to Cantonese. (The equivalent in Standard Chinese would probably be "吃了飯沒有?")


Oh I don't mean to say I don't recognize that there is a difference. I can definitely see that. It's just I wouldn't know that was specifically Cantonese unless you told me. I'm no expert in Cantonese, and so I don't doubt that you are right that there are levels of written Cantonese I haven't encountered. But at the same time, I'm more familiar with Wu and Min, and all this falls in the broader umbrella of what is recognizable to me.

As a non-native speaker I have often found that my understanding of Chinese is much more flexible than my Chinese friends who haven't specifically studied linguistics or dialects. For native speakers, there is often the familiar way Chinese is spoken, which one reflexively understands, and departures from that can be disorienting. For a non-native speaker, it is all more or less equally disorienting, so when I listen to different accents, or read different ways of writing, I simply file it away in my brain as "Oh, Chinese can be like this as well."

But I would put this in direct contrast with reading Japanese or Korean documents written using Chinese characters. I've had to do this as well, and it is a totally different task.


I love your describing a non-native speaker as "it is all more or less equally disorienting". . . . I remember sitting in frontlistening to a TV program in my first weeks in the US, yeaers ago, and getting annoyed at how they mangled the English language: TV commentator:"I'm starved!" Me: "No, you're not, you're just "starving"! If your ear is in constant alert, you hear farmore than the "native-speaker" who is happy enough to just get the gist of it.


Though this is also why I would eagerly sign up for a Duolingo Cantonese module!


My parents came from Taishan (or as we say Hoisan) and they could not understand Mandarin. When we went to the movies in Chinatown, the kids would read the English subtitles and my parents would read the Chinese subtitles because the movie was in Mandarin. So I'm thinking Taishanhua (a dialect of Cantonese) and Putonghua is pretty mutually unintelligible. I recently came across this video that discussed China's fangyan. I chuckled when he quoted somebody saying: asking a Chinese person if he speaks Chinese is like asking a European if he speaks Romance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Wjy0WfKhQc

[deactivated user]

    I originally spoke Taishainese (or a version of it, extremely similar but called Kaipingnese (Hoiping Hua)). They are similar to Cantonese and are about 80-90% intelligible with Cantonese but not 100% intelligible because of different words used, slang, and tones.


    On the up side, I've found that almost everywhere I go, from the Gobi Desert to Singapore, people tend to admire how "standard" my Chinese is (or my slight Beijing accent) and say they wish their kids spoke more a more standard dialect, like I do. It's awkward, because I cherish the linguistic diversity that is rapidly eroding. But the reality is, the Putonghua dialect of Chinese currently gives the greatest set of advantages in terms of business and education opportunities, and that is really important for a lot of people. So by learning Putonghua, you'll probably never be snubbed, and people will go out of the way to meet you in the middle rather than demanding you learn their dialect.


    What an awesome answer! Thank you! I do remember reading (in History-related articles and novels) about the Mandarin elite , the intellectual ruling class, and how hard --and expensive-- it was to pass that series of exams (even Vietnam, where I have family, used to have the same system, until its final demise in the 1950's); what I didn't know was it came from the Portuguese . . . .Fascinating, really! I was about to abandon Duolingo over my frustration stemming from their woefully inadequate right/wrong answer system. I'll hang in there a bit longer thanks to you!... Gave you an ingot , and lots of gratitude from California!


    Well, the exam system came from Confucianism, which played a huge role in China, Vietnam, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan. The term "Mandarin" was based on a Portuguese misunderstanding of the system. They noticed the officials were speaking differently from the locals, and so they thought that there was a "ruling class" who had a distinct language, and formed a distinct ethnic group. They didn't understood that (in theory, though not always in practice) anyone in China could sit for the Civil Service Exam. The reason officials sounded different from locals was unique to the Qing Dynasty, who as a dynasty of outsiders, feared local family connections of Han Chinese bureaucrats, and thus tried to disrupt these relationships, making, essentially, all government officials outsiders, even if they weren't Manchu. This is why officials in Guangdong didn't speak Cantonese.


    Dialects are crazy, my SO is from NanChang,
    我喜欢你 is "ngō zòshi nén"


    Sorry what is SO?
    Nanchang is 南昌? So it should be a kind of Gan.


    SO means "Significant Other" And yes, I think that's the Nanchang momo-wuwen is talking about, given they use Ngo & Nen

    [deactivated user]

      Didn't know that. Thanks for the history lesson!


      May I humbly suggest that, before Duolingo creates another app, the whole Chinese team concentrate ALL their available workforce to polishe this one product, Mandarin Chinese. I have yet to experience as much frustration and disappointment over what could be a great learning tool among world-class Chinese-learning applications. I am well aware that it is a difficult proposition, but suggesting Duolingo build a Cantonese app while their Mandarin Chinese App is not even off the ground and running is offering to put more opportunities to fail on their already-challenging path . . . . . .

      [deactivated user]

        Cantonese is not a dialect. It is distinct enough to be considered its own language.

        I have been working with Learnish (www.learnish.org) to create a Cantonese course if you're interested. I am also working on one with Lalingua (www.lalingua.xyz).


        As a mainlander - - I think that can be done and maybe it's interesting. But if I were the runner of the website, I must take the number of learners into consideration. Now the number of Mandarin learners seems to be larger, and the gap between the them would grow greater.


        uTalk does have a Cantonese course. It's not at a high level (judging from the courses that I have looked at, which do not include Cantonese), but it exists.

        Learn Chinese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.