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Speaking Chinese – The Many Dialects of China

When a person is looking for a Chinese speaking private 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 dialect, 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, for instance 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, some of the teachers in the same school can’t communicate with each other very well. 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 917 million), followed by Wu (90 million), Cantonese (80 million) and Min (50 million), Xiang (35 million), Hakka (35 million). Most of these dialects are very different from each other, although some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, share some common terms and some degree of intelligibility.

Mandarin (Pu Tong Hua) is the official language in China.  Cantonese is common and influential in Guangdong Province and Cantonese-speaking overseas communities, like San Francisco’s Chinatown.  It also 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 spoken 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.

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 use of Chinese characters is ubiquitous throughout China.

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.

Chinese Speaking Private Investigator – Filley and Associates

If you are looking for a Chinese speaking private investigator, Filley and Associates has operatives on staff, who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese. A few of our operatives speak both Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, in addition to English. Our operatives also have some familiarity with 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.

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