On Trying to Speak Chinese in China

Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. By Neil.

I’d been in a cab in Shanghai for about three minutes when I realized the 3 years of Chinese I took in college weren’t going to get me very far. Neither was the Pimsleur audiobook I’d been doing in my car for the last few months, or the entirety of Duolingo’s course on Chinese.

The cabdriver seemed to understand me ok, but I couldn’t understand him very well at all. We still managed to have a very friendly exchange in Mandarin, ending with me helping him perfect his English pronunciation of “taxi.” (Chuzu che in Mandarin.)

I had known that most people in Shanghai speak Shanghainese, but I wasn’t quite sure how much that would impact my ability to get around. It turned out it did quite a bit. But even if I had wanted to study Shanghainese in particular, I would have been at a disadvantage when it comes to resources.

Duolingo presents Mandarin as Chinese itself, without offering Cantonese, which is spoken by 80 million people, including people in Hong Kong, where the second part of our trip took place. For some reason, Duolingo created courses in Klingon and High Valyrian before addressing many of the world’s most commonly spoken languages. To their credit, they recently added Navajo, so maybe they plan to address more native languages.

Google Translate doesn’t offer Cantonese translations either. Pimsleur does offer a course in Cantonese, so prospective learners aren’t totally out of luck. The amazing Pleco app does offer a Cantonese dictionary, which can help in a crunch.

But for the most part, resources were not my major hurdle when it came to speaking in China. The amount of resources that have popped up since I was a kid is incredible. (Hello, YouTube!) I still remember trying to figure out what the beautiful Chinese symbols on my mom’s bars of soap said using a tiny Chinese dictionary she bought me from Barnes & Noble. Projects like Chineasy make learning to read and write in Chinese fun and sort of easy, although gaining literacy probably takes about a decade.

The bigger phenomenon I ran into was the monolithic nature of Chinese, and the fact that it’s not actually monolithic at all. To explain, let me back up a bit. I said that I took Chinese in college for 3 years. The whole time, it was presented to me as “Chinese.” We called it “zhong wen,” which is “Chinese” in Mandarin. My teachers were incredible—many were from Beijing and Taiwan, and we were taught both simplified and traditional Chinese characters.

After graduating and passing the proficiency test and whatnot, a guy interviewed at my work who had lived in China for some time. I told him I spoke Chinese and he replied with, “Ni hui shuo putonghua ma?” I wasn’t sure what “putonghua” was. I’d never heard that word. (I’m letting myself look really dumb here, but hey, worth it for the sake of honesty.) He told me “putonghua” was Mandarin.

I felt really dumb. How come we’d never learned that? I chatted about this exchange with my friend’s brother later, who had moved to China. “Is it offensive to refer to Mandarin as Chinese in China?” I asked him. He told me it wasn’t (if I’m remembering the conversation correctly).

Since my initial conversation where I learned the word for “Mandarin,” I’ve discovered there are several other terms for it. One is guanhua, which means “speech of officials.” Another is guoyu, which I first learned from the show Fresh Off the Boat. This term is more common in Taiwan, and just means “national language.” (Taiwan is an independent state.) How had I never learned any of this?

I’m not an expert on Chinese politics by any measure, but the understanding I’m coming to is that China absolutely wants “Mandarin” and “Chinese” to be synonymous. It’s probably not too different from how many Americans want English to be considered our official language. (For the sake of nuance, I’m referring to the government of China—I can’t say what the general feeling is among China’s people.)

The fact that my language course was called “Chinese” was probably not a coincidence. I would imagine this reflects the way China looks at itself. There’s no question, after visiting, that China is poised to be one of the most powerful countries in the new millennium, and that it has already had a major influence on globalization. But now I’m just saying obvious stuff!

Chinese is probably going to be a major lingua franca in the next millennium, and that Chinese will be Mandarin.  People in Hong Kong seemed more than comfortable speaking Mandarin as well, which is apparently a developing phenomenon. But the word “Chinese” speaks to many other languages that are still living and evolving today—including Cantonese.

The U.S. has a particularly navel-gazing way of looking at English. But many people here take it for granted that everyone in the world speaks our language. They needn’t look far to find someone who doesn’t speak English—there are plenty of them here. It was fascinating for me to compare how these two superpower countries internalize their own language(s).

As someone who believes language is organic, socially-driven and always in flux, I’m inclined to root for all dialects, especially the underdogs. You will not find me campaigning for English to be our national language. Instead, I’ll continue trying to learn more dialects when I travel, even if I feel dumb along the way. Here’s to hoping that someday I can see more of China and experience more of its regional dialects. May the cabdrivers of the world be patient with me.

  1. loved reading this, thank you! i never mastered Mandarin, but grew up speaking Shanghainese with my grandparents/family and was really sad when i hear the gov’t was trying to phase it out, b/c that would basically render my knowledge of it useless, but happy to read people are still speaking it in Shanghai!! (i haven’t been back for like 10 years) also, i’ve had SO MANY people ask me if i “speak chinese” over the course of my life, and i always have to explain that there’s not just one major chinese language, dialects, blah blah. thinking about it in light of what you wrote here is interesting, what a crazy world we live in. xox

    1. Oh interesting. I really hate the idea that any language or dialect will fade away in the near future. Hopefully with all the technology we have today we can preserve more of them. Mandarin was definitely a lingua franca, but yes Shanghainese seemed alive and well. And I LOVED Shanghai. I’d be curious how much it’s changed in the last 10 years. It seems a lot more modern than many US cities. Anyway, thanks for reading!

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