chinese-dialects

The 7 Major Chinese Dialects and Tips for Learning Them

China is a diverse nation—geographically, culturally and linguistically!

Even after spending months or years learning Mandarin Chinese, you’ll still end up unable to understand someone while on your travels through China.

That’s because the Chinese language has 7 major dialects, which can also be considered dialect groups. 

Within these groups, there are estimated to be at least 300 Chinese dialects actively spoken in modern day.

There may even be more groups too—if you do some digging, you’ll find dedicated linguists debating online if there are actually 7, 8 or 10 Chinese dialect groups. But we’ll get into this a bit more later.

To get started, let’s jump into the the major Chinese dialects!

Contents

 

The 7 Major Chinese Dialect Groups

1. Mandarin Chinese

Where it’s spoken: China; Taiwan

Number of speakers: ∼1.1 billion

Mandarin, also known as Putonghua, 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.

Some regions prefer their local dialect, however. They are stereotyped as speaking “bad” Mandarin.

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

Mandarin is also the official language of Taiwan.

Chinese uses tones to differentiate words. There are four tones (five if you count the neutral tone) in Mandarin Chinese.

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

Where it’s spoken: China’s Guangdong province; Guangzhou; Hong Kong; Macau

Number of speakers: ∼73 million

Though not quite second in terms of speakers, Cantonese is the second most widely spread dialect spoken in China. Today, it’s largely spoken by the Tanka people, natives of the Pearl River Delta.

The Cantonese Chinese dialect originated in ancient Guangzhou, also known as Canton City (hence, “Canton”ese!). It began with Middle Chinese and was then influenced by Proto-Tai. Then the language became Proto-Eastern Yue and finally was divided into the Guang Fu and Yong Xun dialects.

Because Cantonese is widely spoken, it’s a bit easier to find learning resources for it compared to other Chinese dialects. Cantonese Chinese uses 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 (Shanghainese)

Where it’s spoken: China’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces; Shanghai

Number of speakers: ∼80 million

Used primarily in Shanghai, the Wu Chinese dialect is mostly known as Shanghainese. But while Shanghainese is one of the major Wu varieties, areas such as Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Hangzhou, Jinhua, Shaoxing and others feature their own variations.

The Wu Chinese dialect originated in the ancient Wu (吴) and Yue (越) kingdoms of China. These kingdoms were located in the modern-day Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang provinces. As a result, these provinces use a version of Wu Chinese called 吴越话 (wú yuè huà), which literally means “Wuyue speech.”

Wu is quite different from Mandarin, although they share similar grammatical patterns and use the same writing system. There are eight tones in Wu Chinese.

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. Hakka Chinese

Where it’s spoken: China; Taiwan; Hong Kong; Macau

Number of speakers: ∼80 million

The Hakka Chinese dialect is spoken throughout Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Southern China. It’s also a common language 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.

The history of Hakka Chinese is a bit unclear. Towards the end of the Western Jin period, multiple migrations took place as people moved to escape war. Many think that Hakka originated during these migrations from Northern to Southern China.

Hakka has six tones and differs greatly from Mandarin and most other Chinese dialects.

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

5. Gan Chinese

Where it’s spoken: China’s Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui and Fujian provinces

Number of speakers: ∼60 million

Gan is most similar to Hakka in terms of pronunciation and phonetics. The two are sometimes grouped together as the Gan-Hakka languages.

The Gan Chinese dialect is native to the Jiangxi province. In 221 BC, during the Qin Dynasty, troops were sent to the Fujian and Guangdong territories. Many Han Chinese people migrated to the Jiangxi province as a result. The Gan dialect grew as the population of Jiangxi increased.

Unlike other dialects, the vocabulary of Gan Chinese is primarily ancient. It contains words that are rarely used in Mandarin today. It has six (or seven) tones.

Example words and phrases:

困觉 (Kùn gào) — To sleep

衣裳 (Yīshang) — Clothes

6. Hokkien Chinese

Where it’s spoken: Taiwan; Malaysia; Singapore; Indonesia; the Philippines; China’s Fujian province

Number of speakers: ∼50 million

The Hokkien Chinese dialect is a common lingua franca in overseas Chinese communities. It’s spoken in various countries throughout Southeast Asia and Indochina as well as in the Fujian province of Southeastern China.

Hokkien is also called Minnan, because it originated in the Minnan region of China’s Fujian province.  It’s widespread popularity is thanks to the Chinese diaspora, since many of the people who speak it come from Minnan ancestry.

The Hokkien Chinese dialect is noticeably similar to Hakka. 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

7. Xiang Chinese

Where it’s spoken: China’s Hunan, Guangxi, Hubei and Guizhou provinces

Number of speakers: ∼36 million

The Xiang Chinese dialect, also called Hsiang and Hunanese, is spoken in various Chinese provinces. Xiang can be further divided into five subgroups: Chang-Yi, Lou-Shao, Hengzhou, Chen-Xu and Yong-Quan.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a large group of people migrated to the Hunan province. Xiang Chinese developed during this time. It shares many similarities with Mandarin and has been greatly influenced by it, as well as by the Gan Chinese dialect.

Of the seven entries on this list, Xiang Chinese is perhaps the most difficult to find resources for online. Xiang uses five tones.

Example words and phrases:

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

How Many Chinese Dialects Are There?

Linguists debate whether some Chinese dialects should be considered languages. For now, due to political reasons, China classifies them all as dialects.

According to K&J Translations, China is home to over 302 individual languages/dialects. In fact, the United Nations has declared April 20 “Chinese Language Day” because of the linguistic diversity of Chinese.

For a quick overview of the various dialects, check out the video below which features 25 different Chinese dialects. You might notice that some of them sound almost identical.

How to Learn Chinese Dialects: Our Favorite Tips

It can be painstakingly hard to learn Chinese dialects—especially the less common ones, which have many fewer resources and materials available for learning them.

But have no fear!

Here are some tips for quality language learning of minority dialects using the power of the internet.

Learn some basic Mandarin first

But wait, isn’t the purpose here to explain how to learn Chinese dialects other than Mandarin?

Hear me out. While a few dialects are quite different from Mandarin, most are undeniably similar. Learning the basics of Mandarin will help you learn other dialects that sound similar and even share some 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. After all, it is the country’s official language.

Finally, compared to many other Chinese dialects, Mandarin is easy. While Hokkien has eight tones, Mandarin only has four (or five). If you’ve never learned a tonal language before, Mandarin is a great introduction!

Find an online tutor

Booking an online language tutor is beneficial for two reasons. You will have much better luck finding trustworthy learning materials, and you’ll get one-on-one lessons with a native speaker.

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 (all personalized!), and choose a study schedule that is convenient for you.

Currently, the site has Chinese tutors available for Cantonese, Wu/Shanghainese, Hakka, Hokkien, Taiwanese and more dialects.

Search YouTube for videos

For common Chinese dialects like Mandarin and Cantonese, it’s easy to find videos on YouTube. But the amount of authentic content created in minority dialects is often very limited.

Here’s a trick I use to make YouTube work to my advantage. 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 likely find a few entertaining videos that expose you to it.

Here are some I found in minority Chinese dialects:

Hakka Chinese

Hokkien Chinese

Wu Chinese (Shanghainese)

Visit a place where the dialect is spoken

Not everyone is able to do this, but if you ever get a chance to visit Asia, make sure to go to a country or Chinese province where your target 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. Their profile will probably show Mandarin as their native language, but it never hurts to ask whether they speak Shanghainese if you see they’re from Shanghai!

 

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