November 3rd, 2009 | Published in China - Language
When I flew to China, the first Chinese person that I actually spoke to was, of course, in America. He was waiting with me in the check-in line, in the JFK Airport.
The flight from New York to Shanghai was, understandably, populated mostly by Chinese people (there were a few Westerners, but I could count them on one hand). This guy was standing in line in front of me with his wife. I heard him say, “He has a nice backpack; that’s a very special backpack,” and realized he was talking about me (I was wearing a big North Face overnight pack that was not particularly special but was out of place among the travel gear of everybody else).
So, I said hello and we talked for a minute. I told him that I was going to Fujian Province.
“Oh, they speak a lot of crazy dialects there,” he said. “I do not understand those people.”
In my bags, I had two books on Chinese and three audiobooks on learning Chinese (Mandarin). One of the things I wanted to do while in China was/is learn Chinese. So that was not terrific news for me.
Since then, I have come to realize that he was right, but not totally (it is possible to understand people here in Fujian, because they do speak Mandarin, if with a very heavy southern accent), and also in more ways than he intended (it’s not just that people in Fujian don’t speak standard Mandarin, but that a good chunk of Chinese people in general do not seem to speak standard Mandarin).
Which all leads to the title of this post, which is, there is no Chinese.
Officially, I guess, that statement is incorrect. Mandarin is the official language of China and is what is primarily spoken in Beijing, apparently. So people from the northern/Beijing area tend to speak fairly standard Mandarin. But go elsewhere in the country and you could come across any number of dialects, heavy accents (like way more prohibitive than just a southern v. northeastern accent in the U.S.), and sometimes just flat out different languages, which is what some of the dialects are (different languages).
Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, are two major dialects/languages in China. Mandarin is the standard language spoken here in the university. So classes are taught in Mandarin (or the case of my classes, English). But all of the students speak their own local dialects.
Some students explained this to me over lunch a week ago. There were about five of them eating with me, and they told me that among them they spoke two different local dialects. One was called Min Nan Yu (Fujian Southern Language) and the other one I didn’t catch the name of. These were just two dialects of Fujian. There are others. The students speak these languages among each other in their dorms, and often can’t understand the students from two doors down, because they have a different local dialect. These students are all from Fujian. Fujian is just one relatively small province in a much, much bigger country. See the image below — Fujian is the red blotch in the SEern section of China.
Yeah. So if there are multiple dialects spoken in that small red spot, how many languages do you think are spoken throughout China? Lots. I haven’t found an exact number in any reliable source, but apparently there are about 7-ish dialect groups in China, including Mandarin and Cantonese, and any number of permutations of those dialects.
Which means that even if a person knew Mandarin and Cantonese, there is a good chance that in parts of China he/she still wouldn’t be able to communicate with people.
Thankfully, most of my students primarily speak Mandarin and English around me, so I can communicate with them now in English, and there is a distant, snowball-in-hell chance that one day I will be able to understand what they are saying in Mandarin.
But, the catch is, I can’t really learn Mandarin from them. Because…they all have heavy southern accents, and their Mandarin is influenced by their local dialects. Which means that they all say words differently, some correctly, some incorrectly.
The word “water” is a good example. In Mandarin, water is shuǐ (pronounced like “shway”). But some students pronounce it like “sway”, which is incorrect (accented), but which they would correct me on if I tried to learn “water” from them and pronounced it “shway” (which is correct). I ran into this problem over and over again my first two weeks here, before I started taking lessons. I would learn a word one way, and the next day, a different group of students would teach me the same word, pronounced differently.
And that is only one tiny pronounciation difference…the students, because of their accents/dialects, also pronounce their r’s as zh’s and l’s differently, and there are other differences…
On top of all that (all the speaking differences), it turned out that the Chinese writing book that I brought with me to Chinese is also useless. Mainland China now uses a simplified form of Chinese characters for writing, while Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Chinatowns in America, use an older and more complex version of Chinese writing. So, I might as well line hamster cages with the writing book I got in the U.S.
All of this is to say that I am really glad I am taking Chinese lessons now, because learning Chinese from random students in Fujian, it turns out, is close to impossible.
I have them for 4 hours a week, and each lesson is a small disaster, because I really can’t pronounce the words, but I think I might be learning something. That’s good enough for now.
Naptime. Peace out.