Learning Chinese: myths and misconceptions

We must distinguish Mandarin and Cantonese. These are separate languages!” (Professor of linguistics, University of York, January 2015)

“Which variety of Chinese do you speak? Cantonese. What a shame. I only know how to say a few things in Mandarin. I guess we can’t communicate then.” (Professor of linguistics, King’s College London, July 2011)

“What are all those wiggly signs? Can you read them?’ (Student, Sherborne School, September 2001)

“Tones? Can you even change your voice?” (Student, Sherborne School, February 2001)

These quotes from past conversations reflect some common misconceptions about Chinese. As China is gaining international prominence, many Westerners are taking a strong interest in its language and culture. However, in my first encounter with foreigners who are interested in learning Chinese, they always say something like the people quoted above, which reflects a total ignorance of the sociolinguistic situation in China and in the Sinosphere in general. In this article, I intend to debunk some popular myths about the Chinese language and clarify some issues that may prove important to your future learning of Chinese.

First of all, it is widely held that Chinese consists of two mutually unintelligible and exclusive varieties, Cantonese and Mandarin, and it is disheartening to see this type of belief even in some prominent academic linguists (see the first two quotes above). The idea that Chinese bidialectal is both an underestimation and overestimation of the sociolinguistic situation in the Sinosphere: Chinese consists of tens of thousands of regional varieties that have been classified into seven macrovarieties (Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Min, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka), and within each family there are countless sub-varieties with microvariations. For a snapshot of the dialectal distribution and complexity in China, take a look at this:

The dialectal density of China is easily on a par with some of the dialectally densest regions of the world (Italy, Germany and India), and given how enormous China is (one of the biggest countries in the world), there are easily thousands (if not millions) of dialects. It is certainly not true that there are only two forms of Chinese. Secondly, mutual unintelligibility between Chinese dialects may well be largely correct, though it must be said that degrees of intelligibility are not an exact science and are highly dependent on the general level of education/literacy of the speaker.

It is by no means inconceivable that a highly educated/literate Chinese can understand another dialect, especially if it is closely related to his/her native variety and is carefully and emphatically pronounced. Moreover, the main differences between Chinese dialects that impede communication are down mainly to the differences in phonology. It has been proven by leading linguists (e.g. Wang Li 王力) that while Chinese phonology can differ dramatically from one dialect to another, the amount of grammatical variation is comparatively minuscule (though not insignificant) as Chinese dialects share a lot of grammatical properties in common, and there have been attempts to reconstruct pan-Sinitic grammar (e.g. Thurgood and La Polla – 2003). Lastly and most importantly, it is well-established in sociolinguistics that the definitions for “languages” and “dialects” should be based onsociopolitical considerations rather than grammatical properties (see Chambers and Trudgill – 1998).

A classic and famous dictum is that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” – i.e. languages are official varieties whereas dialects are vernaculars. From this perspective, China definitely has an official lingua franca in the form of standard Mandarin commonly termed asputonghua (普通话)/guoyu (国语)/hanyu (汉语), which is widely taught in schools and used in public media, and this superstrate arches over regional varieties, which are confined to particular regions for colloquial purposes. This is a classic diglossic configuration that is very widely attested throughout multilingual societies. The idea that Chinese consists of two mutually exclusive languages is utter nonsense.

As so many Westerners have been fooled into thinking that Mandarin and Cantonese are separate languages, they often think that they have to decide from the outset which one to learn. Once they are down one route they think they cannot possibly go back, which is far too sharp a dichotomy. My experience in teaching Chinese tells me that Westerners come to learn Chinese for a wide variety of reasons, some, predictably, for professional purposes like wanting to communicate with Chinese clients/colleagues and/or move and settle in China, but there are also other reasons like wanting to watch Chinese (especially Cantonese) movies, improve familial relationships, attract Chinese boy/girlfriends, etc.

It makes sense to learn Mandarin, as it is the official variety used throughout the Sinosphere, but the demand for other dialects, especially Cantonese, is also significant, since Cantonese, like most other dialects, has acquired its own vernacular culture and many foreigners are curious about what “Canto” is e.g. “Cantopop,” “Cantomovie’ “”Canto-TV,” etc:

It is highly recommended that students/clients make known their desire to learn Chinese and negotiate with their teachers accordingly. And there is no such thing as “no turning back” so feel free to learn all Chinese varieties if you like (though it might just take you a bit of time…!), and there are plenty of resources for this.

Finally, many Westerners, despite their tremendous desire to learn Chinese, are daunted by the prospect of actually doing it, since there are many properties in Chinese that look like nothing on earth (hence the comments above the script and tones above). My experience in Chinese language and linguistics indicates that it is by no means impossible for foreigners to master Chinese and become fluent in it. The two things that are most off-putting are the script, which is hieroglyphic and non-alphabetic, and the tones, which are fully grammatical and essential for lexical production.

With regards to the first hurdle, I have taught many students who tell me that they only want to learn how to speak and understand and cannot be bothered with reading/writing, and I have had a lot of success in getting my students to acquire oral and communicative proficiency without the ability to read/write.

Reading and writing in Chinese are indeed specialized skills and do require a lot of effort fr