chinese-dialects

Mastering Chinese Dialects: How Many Are There and Which Should You Learn?

Picture this.

You’ve spent months (maybe even years) dreaming of going to China.

You enrolled in a few courses, downloaded a few apps and flipped through flashcards a few times each day.

Only when you finally set foot on Chinese soil, you were surrounded by what seemed like a completely different language!

Fact: There are more than 302 individual Chinese languages, and 276 of them are indigenous.

Don’t freak out just yet, though!

Odds are you’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese—the official language of China. While every Chinese person is taught Mandarin, however, not everyone speaks it at home in their local city.

Whether you’ve already learned a Chinese dialect or it’s your first time learning Chinese, choosing which dialect to learn, gathering resources and forming a successful strategy can be difficult for a language that few people attempt.

In this post, we’ll give you a rundown of the top seven Chinese dialects, where they’re spoken and how they came about. Plus, we’ll share some tips for learning a minority language.

Let’s dive in!
 


 

Tips to Learn Minority Chinese Dialects

Unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, it can be painstakingly hard to learn less common Chinese dialects. From finding high-quality resources to getting a grasp of basic pronunciation, it can be challenging to create a roadmap that will take you from wannabe-speaker to progressing learner.

Luckily, we have a few tips to share when it comes to leveraging the internet for quality language learning, even for minority dialects. Here are four tips to kickstart your journey.

1. Find an Online Tutor

Booking an online language tutor is beneficial for two reasons. Not only will you have much better luck finding trustworthy learning materials that go beyond a few basic phrases, but you’ll also get one-on-one lessons with a native speaker.

For common languages like Mandarin, Spanish and German, it’s easy to find videos on YouTube or guides on Google to perfect your pronunciation. But for minority languages, you’re extremely limited as to the amount of authentic content created in your target language.

chinese-dialects

A great place to start is a website like italki. There, you can browse hundreds of online tutors at different prices. Book as many lessons as you want, and choose a study schedule that is convenient for you. With italki, you’ll get to connect with people all over the world and gain access to personalized lessons. Currently, the site has tutors available for Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Shanghainese, Taiwanese and “other” Chinese dialects.

2. Search YouTube for Videos

While this might sound impossible for a rare Chinese dialect, there are a few cards you can play to use YouTube to your advantage. I personally used and created this method while trying to find authentic videos in Indonesian, Tagalog and Cebuano (a dialect in the Philippines).

Simply search for “speaking (your target language) for 24 hours” or “speaking only (your target language) for a day.” While you might not come across channels that consistently produce content in your target language, you’ll find some entertaining videos that expose you to it.

To save you some time, here are a few videos I found in minority Chinese dialects.

Hakka Chinese

Practice your Hakka listening skills and pick up a few new useful vocabulary words, such as “good morning” and “excuse me,” with this video by YouTuber inmimisbowl:

Hokkien Chinese

Learn how to talk about your daily routine in Hokkien, and practice your listening skills with this fun YouTube video by Felicia Zoe.

Wu Chinese (Shanghainese)

In this fun video by YouTuber twirlingpages, you can relax and enjoy a cool shopping haul in the Wu Shanghainese dialect.

You can also learn some interesting slang in the Wu Chinese dialect by checking out the following video by RADII China:

By the way, if you enjoy learning Chinese with videos, then you’ll love FluentU!

chinese-dialects

FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

You can use the interactive captions to click on any word to find out more about it and see it used in example sentences and additional videos.

You can also easily add vocabulary words to customized lists and flashcard sets and then test your knowledge with fun quizzes!

Sign up for a free trial to access the extensive video library.

3. Learn Some Basic Mandarin First

But wait, isn’t the purpose of this blog post to teach you how to learn Chinese dialects other than Mandarin?

Before you start internally screaming at me, hear me out. While there are a few dialects that are quite different from Mandarin, the vast majority are undeniably similar. Learning the basics of Mandarin first will help you to learn another dialect that sounds similar and even shares a few vocabulary and grammar points. Plus, knowing a bit of survival Mandarin ensures that no matter where you are in China, you’ll be able to get around, as it’s the country’s official language.

Even in some regions, Mandarin is spoken more commonly than the local dialect. I’m a testimony to this, as my language partner is from Jiangxi province but rarely ever speaks her local dialect.

Finally, Mandarin is easy compared to many other Chinese dialects. For example, while Mandarin only has four tones, Hokkien has eight. If you’ve never learned a tonal language before, perhaps start with Mandarin first!

4. Visit a Province Where Your Dialect Is Spoken

I understand that not everyone is able to do this, but if you ever get a chance to visit China, make sure to go to the place where your dialect is spoken.

If you can’t visit in person, consider downloading a language exchange app and looking for language partners specifically from your target region. While their profile will probably display Mandarin as their native language, it never hurts to ask if they speak Shanghainese if you see they’re from Shanghai.

Mastering Chinese Dialects: How Many Are There and Which Should You Learn?

How Many Chinese Dialects Are There?

As mentioned at the beginning of this post and according to Day Translations, China is home to over 302 individual languages, and 276 of them are indigenous. In fact, the United Nations has declared April 20 to be “Chinese Language Day” because of the linguistic diversity in the country.

However, there’s a debate between linguists as to whether or not some of these Chinese dialects should be considered languages. Due to political situations, China classifies them as dialects.

To get an idea of what a few of the most common dialects sound like, take a look at this video by Monkey Abroad that features 25 different dialects. You’ll also notice how some of the dialects sound almost identical.

Top 7 Chinese Dialects and Where They’re Spoken

You now know a few tips for learning minority dialects, how many Chinese dialects exist and what 25 of them sound like. But which are the most common?

Let’s dive into the seven most frequently spoken Chinese dialects, where you can find them, the history behind each one and more.

1. Mandarin Chinese Dialect (Putonghua)

Also known as Putonghua, Mandarin is the official language of China. It’s spoken throughout the country and is taught (and used) in all schools. As a result, nearly every Chinese person can speak or at least understand Mandarin. However, some regions are known for preferring their local dialect and are stereotyped as speaking “bad” Mandarin. Mandarin is also the official language of Taiwan.

The late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was when Mandarin began to be recognized as the language of the majority, according to ThoughtCo. However, it didn’t become the official language until 1909.

Mandarin is known for using tones to differentiate words and consists of four major tones and five if you count the neutral tone.

Example Words and Phrases

你好 (Nǐ hǎo) — Hello

你好吗? (Nǐ hǎo ma) — How are you?

你吃饭了吗? (Nǐ chīfànle ma) — Have you eaten yet?

2. Cantonese Chinese Dialect (Yue)

Cantonese is spoken in Guangdong province, including cities like Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou. It’s the second most commonly spoken dialect in China with 73.4 million native speakers. As a result, Cantonese is a bit easier to find learning resources for than other Chinese dialects.

Cantonese originated in ancient Guangzhou, also known as Canton City. Today, it’s also spoken by the Tanka people, natives of the Pearl River Delta. Historically, they spoke a Tai dialect, but as they migrated from inland China to the coast, they adopted Cantonese. Today, they live primarily in boats along the coast of Guangdong province.

The origins of Cantonese are quite interesting. It began with Middle Chinese, then was influenced by Proto-Tai and became Proto Eastern Yue and finally was further divided into the Guang Fu and Yong Xun dialects.

Like all other Chinese dialects, Cantonese is a tonal language and is comprised of six tones.

Example Words and Phrases

你好 (néih hóu) — Hello

你好吗?(néih hóu ma) — How are you?

再见 (joigin) — Goodbye

3. Wu Chinese Dialect (Shanghainese)

Used primarily in Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province and Zhejiang province, Wu Chinese is spoken by 85 million people. Shanghainese is one of the major Wu Chinese varieties, but places such as Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Hangzhou, Jinhua, Shaoxing and others feature their own variations.

Wu Chinese is known to be quite different from Mandarin, although they share similar grammatical patterns and use the same writing system. There are eight tones in Wu Chinese compared to the four or five in Mandarin.

This dialect originated in the ancient Wu () and Yue () kingdoms of China, which is modern-day Jiangsu province and northern Zhejiang province. As a result, these two provinces share a common version of Wu Chinese called 吴越话 (wú yuè huà), which literally means “Wuyue speech.”

Example Words and Phrases

侬好 (nóng hō) — Hello

侬好伐? (nóng hō va?) or 侬过得还好伐? (nóng kûle e-hô va?) — How are you?

再喂 (zai wēi) — Goodbye

4. Hokkien Chinese Dialect (Minnan)

Hokkien Chinese, also called Minnan, originated in the Minnan region of Fujian province, located in Southeastern China. It’s still commonly spoken there today, as well as in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries thanks to the Chinese diaspora, many of whom came from Minnan ancestry.

Despite being the common lingua franca in overseas Chinese communities, as well as being spoken in Taiwan and many countries in Southeast Asia and Indochina, Hokkien only has about 50 million speakers.

Like Wu Chinese, Hokkien has eight tones and differs greatly from Mandarin.

Example Words and Phrases

食饱未? (Chia̍h pá boeh?) — Hello (literally, have you eaten yet?)

汝/你好无(吗)? (Lu/Li ho bo?) — How are you?

再会 (Zai-hueh) — Goodbye

5. Xiang Chinese Dialect (Hsiang)

Also called Hsiang and Hunanese, the Xiang Chinese dialect is spoken in Hunan province, northern Guangxi and parts of Hubei and Guizhou provinces. This dialect can further be divided into five subgroups: Chang-Yi, Lou-Shao, Hengzhou, Chen-Xu and Yong-Quan.

Unlike the Wu and Hokkien dialects, Xiang Chinese shares many similarities with Mandarin and has been greatly influenced by it, as well as by the Gan Chinese dialect. This is because, during the Ming Dynasty, a large group of people migrated to Hunan province.

Today, there are approximately 36 million native speakers.

Example Words and Phrases

Of all seven dialects, Xiang Chinese is perhaps the most difficult to find resources for online. However, one common phrase to use to greet people in Xiang is as follows:

你吃了吗? (nǐ chīle ma?) — Have you eaten yet?

It’s pronounced the same way as in Mandarin.

6. Gan Chinese Dialect

This Chinese dialect is native to Jiangxi province but also spoken in Hunan, Hubei, Anhui and Fujian provinces. Out of every Chinese dialect, Gan is most similar to Hakka in terms of pronunciation and phonetics. Today, 60 million people speak it.

Gan Chinese traces its origins back to the Qin Dynasty (221 BC) when troops were sent to Fujian and Guangdong territories. A large population of Han Chinese people migrated to Jiangxi province as a result, and during the Han Dynasty, the Gan dialect grew as the population of the Yuzhang Commandery stationed in Jiangxi increased to 1,670,000 in AD 140.

Example Words and Phrases

Unlike other dialects, the vocabulary of Gan Chinese is primarily ancient and contains words that are rarely used in Mandarin today.

困觉 (kùn gào) — To sleep

衣裳 (yīshang) — Clothes

7. Hakka Chinese Dialect

Similar to Hokkien, the Hakka Chinese dialect is spoken throughout Southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and it’s common in diasporas of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and around the world.

Because it’s spoken so widely, Hakka can be further divided into even more dialects. However, it differs greatly from Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu Chinese and Southern Hokkien (Min).

While the history of Hakka is a bit uncertain, most believe that it originated due to multiple migrations from Northern to Southern China towards the end of the Western Jin period because of war.

As of today, 80 million people speak the Hakka dialect.

Example Words and Phrases

你好 (ngi2 ho3) — Hello

你姓么个? (ngi2 siang5 ma3ge5?) — What’s your name?

食昼没 (siit8zu5mut8) — Good afternoon

 

And there you have it: seven of China’s most commonly spoken dialects, where they’re spoken, how they came to be and how to learn them! We’re positive that with the right tools, a good language partner and perhaps a trip to China, you’ll be set for mastery in one of these fascinating Chinese dialects.


Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving, and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.
 

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

Comments are closed.