Chinese | Mandarin Cantonese and More

Speaking Chinese – The Many Dialects of China

Whrn a client asks for a Chinese speaking investigator, they often do not understand that there are several dialects of Chinese. Mandarin is the official language in China and Cantonese is used in Canton, centered in Guangdong and Hong Kong regions, but many people outside of China don’t know that China has many more separate and distinct local dialects used all over China. Each area has it’s own language, some similar to the official language of Mandarin and some completely undecipherable to people outside that local area. These dialects are not accents, such as are found in the US, the UK and Australia in which the same or similar words are spoken differently. The dialects in China differ from each other much more than that.

Mandarin, Cantonese and other local dialects

The Chinese word for speach is “Hwa”, so the local language in Guilin is called, “Guilin Hwa”. The Language in Fujian province is called, “Fujian Hwa” and so on. In China, the differences in languages is a popular topic of discussion. People enjoy talking about the similarities and differences between the various dialects.

For example, Filley & Associates helps support a school for orphans in Nanning, where some of the teachers speak Mandarin and some speak Cantonese. Amazingly, the teachers in the same school can’t communicate with each other. To complicate matters, some of the students are learning Mandarin as a second language, their primary language being Zhuang, which in structure and sound is closer to Vietnamese, than Chinese. To give you an example of how different these dialects truly are, here is how one says, “Yes” in Zhuang:

Put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blow air out of your open mouth, on both sides of your tongue. It should sound something like a snake’s hiss, coming from the back of your tongue. Follow that with “lay”. That means “Yes” in Zhuang. Contrast that with “Shi” (sounds like “sure” in English) which is “Yes” in Mandarin.

Spoken Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, although all spoken varieties of Chinese are tonal. There are between seven and thirteen main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken, by far, is Mandarin (about 1365 million), followed by Wu (90 million), Cantonese (80 million) and Min (50 million), Xiang (35 million), Hakka (35 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, although some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility.

Mandarin (Pu Tong Hua) is the official language in China. It was based on Beijing dialect which is part of a larger group of North-Eastern and South-Western dialects, often taken as a separate language. And Cantonese is common and influential in Guangdong Province and Cantonese-speaking overseas communities, and remains one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese) and Southern Cities in the Guangxi Province.

Wu is a dialect of Wu Chinese in the city of Shanghai and the surrounding region. Shanghainese is a representative dialect of Northern Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Northern Wu area (southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang)

Min is the name of a broad group of Chinese languages spoken by about 50 million people in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian as well as by migrants from this province in Guangdong (around Chaozhou, or Chaoshan area, and the Leizhou), Hainan, three counties in southern Zhejiang, and Zhoushan archipelago off Ningbo, and some towns in Jiangsu province, and Taiwan. There are many Min speakers also among overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia as well as in New York City in the United States. The most widely spoken variety of Min is Hokkien, which includes Taiwanese and Amoy, among other dialects.

Xiang is well spoken mainly in Hunan province, but also in Sichuan Province, municipality of Chongqing and Guangxi provinces. Dialect in Guilin City, Liuzhou City, Hunan, Chongqing, Chengdu all belong to Xiang. It is also called Southwestern Mandarin.

Hakka (Kejia Hua) is spoken predominantly in southern China by the Hakka people and Southeast Asia. The Hakka language has developed numerous variants or dialects, spoken in Guangdong, Fujian, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan and Guizhou provinces, including Hainan islands, Singapore and Taiwan.

The Chinese word for words or language is “Hua”, so the local language in Guilin is called, “Guilin Hua” which belongs to Xiang. The Language in Fujian province is called, “Fujian Hua” which belongs to Min and so on. In China, the difference in languages is a popular topic of discussion. Differences exist between Cities which speak the same group of language. For example: people from Guangxi Province (Guilin city, Liuzhou city) will be able to communicate with people from Chongqing and Chengdu by their dialect. Guilin hua sounds very similar to other 3 cities but there are tones difference and some language hobby difference. People enjoy talking about the similarities and differences between the various dialects.

The use of Chinese characters is ubiquitous throughout China, except in rural areas of the 5 Autonomous Regions which still keep their writing system alive. (The 5 Autonomous Regions are: Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Gansu Hui Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Urger Autonomous Region). In those areas, the local dialect is the primary language, with Mandarin used as a poorly spoken second language, or not at all.

How Does this Affect Investigations in the United States?

The answer is that it has a profound affect. It means that people are acutely aware of who is part of their trusted community and who is not. In San Francisco, for instance, one must determine whether a Chinese speaking witness or Subject of an investigation speaks Mandarin or Cantonese before choosing an investigator to speak with them. Less common are people who only speak local dialects, such as Fujian Hwa, Taiwan Hwa or Shanghai Hwa. These people are normally immigrants from rural areas of that province, who grew up speaking the dialect and never learned China’s official language, Mandarin. These case are more difficult, as investigators who speak these dialects are few and far between. In some instances, a translator must be used.

How can Filley and Associates help?

Filley and Associates has operatives on staff, who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese. A few of our operatives speak moth Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, in addition to English. Our operatives also speak some of the local dialects. In most cases, we will have to know where the witness is from, or speak with them to know which language or dialect they use.

Contact us here.