Notes from a pilot's kid

There Aren't a Billion Mandarin Speakers in China

Bashi in Chengdu

The Chinese Communist Party has made great efforts to promote a common language for its citizens. Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty and especially after the formation of the People’s Republic of China, a common spoken language has been heavily promoted; all school instruction, most news and radio broadcasts, and most official communication throughout China are in Standard Chinese (also called Mandarin and Putonghua). Today, many Chinese whose ancestors would not have been able to communicate with those living a few hundred kilometers away can now communicate more easily using the country’s new common spoken language. A recent study reports that about 70% of Chinese citizens can speak Standard Chinese, a large proportional increase from one decade before, and it is assumed that much of this increase has come from Chinese youth’s experience with an education system in the now-standardized language.

But the ability to speak Standard Chinese should not be confused with the preference and incidence of speaking the language. The government’s efforts seem to have had little effect on everyday communication (maybe that was never the goal). Local dialects are alive, preferred, and spoken daily by young people.

I spent the last month in Guizhou and Sichuan and ran into several reminders of the limits of implementing policy that promotes a standard language:

  • A middle-aged man on a train from Hainan Province, traveling from Zunyi to Chengdu, seemed confused about which train station in Chengdu we’d arrive in the morning (there are more than three or four). In a typically loud voice in his local dialect (or perhaps a heavily accented form of Standard Chinese), he asked a passing train attendant his question. I do not speak the dialect but could at least understand that he was asking whether Chengdu Station and Chengdu East Station were different. The train attendant immediately dismissed the guy’s question using Standard Chinese: “I don’t understand what you’re saying. I’m not from Guizhou, and I’m not from Sichuan.” Several nearby passengers laughed – probably because they knew the Hainanese man and his dialect were also not from either province – and the train attendant walked off.

  • One night, I was invited to play drinking games with a group of young guys mostly from Bazhong, Sichuan. One guy was particularly talkative, speaking in his local version of Sichuanese. Perhaps he had a few too many drinks, but when his friends continually asked him to speak Standard Chinese, he was a bit frustrated and responded “I am speaking Standard Chinese!” At no point during the evening did I hear him speak something that I would consider standard.

  • Several times in both Guiyang and Chengdu when going with groups of friends to have dinner, the group conversation which began in Standard Chinese would “slip” into the local dialect, especially if a comment or question during the conversation was not relevant to the people in the group incapable of understanding the local language. Then, someone in the group would eventually notice that the conversation language had changed and would interrupt to say “please speak Standard Chinese!” The group would then revert to the standard, often retracing the last bits of the conversation out of courtesy to non-local group members.

  • I made friends with a couple who recently opened an upscale beer bar in Chengdu. The woman is from Lanzhou, Gansu Province and the man is a Han Chinese from a far-northern part of Inner Mongolia. Both said that after spending a few years in Sichuan they realized that learning not only to understand but also to speak the local dialect will make their lives much easier. They also mentioned that the ability to speak Sichuanese has helped their business immensely, as most customers will only speak to them in Sichuanese.

  • I spoke with a 21-year old girl from a smaller city outside of Chengdu who said she had never before spoken to a foreigner. After talking for a few minutes, she mentioned to me, “you know, I really hate speaking Standard Chinese, but I know foreigners can’t understand Sichuanese so I don’t mind this time.”

The first reminder does not conflict with the typical narrative and statistics about Standard Chinese in China. The nation-wide train system lends no support to passengers who cannot speak Mandarin; perhaps the reason for this is itself a form of encouragement to citizens to refrain from speaking local dialects when using state-run services. The tipsy man from Bazhong as well as many of the passengers on my train are probably part of the 30% of Chinese who can not speak Mandarin at all from the recent government statistic linked above.

The third reminder, which was not just one or two isolated events, highlights the dependency of social interaction on language. If a group of friends are all fully proficient in two or more languages, there is typically one language between them that feels most natural to have a conversation (this is not specific to China, obviously). As I observed in Guizhou and Sichuan, switching to an alternative language among friends is difficult; even in a situation where it would be polite to use an alternative, friends speak the dialect that comes naturally for the social situation and have to remind themselves to switch languages to accomodate an outsider.

These group conversations also call to attention the degree of difference between various local dialects and Standard Chinese. Even for Sichuanese, which is often called “Sichuanese Mandarin” and considered to be relatively similar to Standard Chinese, vocabulary only overlaps with standard Mandarin by 49%. Furthermore, most standard Standard Chinese speakers I’ve asked find Sichuanese unintelligible. And outsiders who move to Sichuan don’t have the option to go to school to learn Sichuanese but do realize the need to speak the dialect to assimilate locally, as seen from my friends from Gansu and Inner Mongolia. If the dialect were really so similar to Standard Chinese, I’d expect that outsiders would more easily be able to understand Sichuanese and that no one would have to learn to speak Sichuanese when moving to the province. Other dialects spoken in Hunan, Guangdong, Fujian, and elsewhere are even more different.

The fifth reminder corresponds again to my friends from Gansu and Inner Mongolia. Just because more than two-thirds of the population can speak Standard Chinese doesn’t mean they like to do so, and when in their home province they may not be willing to be courteous to visitors by speaking the national standard language. Though I am unsure whether this girl’s unwillingness to speak Standard Chinese is common, it’s this preference that encourages or perhaps necessitates a person from outside the province to learn the local dialect if they plan to stay for a while.

Finally, these observations about and reflections on the use of local dialects have been exclusively focused on spoken language. The reason for this is that these local dialects are largely unwritable (except for Hong Kong Cantonese). Chinese characters correspond best to Literary Chinese and have only been adapted as the writing system for vernacular Standard Chinese (more information in this example from Taiwan). In practice, a Sichuanese person speaks in a dialect that only overlaps 50% in vocabulary with the language that they write, and they may often have no way to convey to another Sichuanese person via written communication what they would normally speak. This is a tough concept for me to understand, but I expect that overall it increases the importance and value of oral communication between friends and colleagues as this is the most natural and native way for people to communicate. By extension, I believe this is a major driving force behind the success of smartphone messaging applications like WeChat/Weixin that allow users to communicate via short audio messages in addition to text messages.

When reading a language instruction introduction or news article that mentions that “Mandarin Chinese is the mother tongue of over 873 million people” or something similar, take these claims with caution. A Chinese or a foreigner who speaks Standard Chinese is still not able to understand the majority of everyday verbal communication in the country. China is far more diverse than that, and there is so much more to learn about language and culture in China beyond what can be learned using only Mandarin. For examples of linguistic diversity in China, check out Phonemica, which offers a way to explore user-uploaded examples of local dialects from all over China and Taiwan, and this quick NPR article about Sichuanese.