Feb 16

Why Study a Chinese Dialect?

By  Grace


To celebrate 2016 International Mother Language Day, this blog post is dedicated to the beautiful languages and dialects of China!

When I mention an interest in learning Chinese dialects, I am almost always met with the same response: What’s the point? Their reasoning is clear: Mandarin Chinese is the lingua-franca in China and the importance of dialects is decreasing, so there seems little point in struggling to learn a Chinese dialect. I, however, argue that there are huge economic, cultural and social benefits of learning a Chinese dialect both inside and outside China. The value of Mandarin as a lingua-franca is clear, however, a brief look below the surface illuminates a plethora of reasons why someone may pursue the study of a Chinese dialect.

– Personal Development

For someone looking for a job using the Chinese language, knowledge of one or more Chinese dialects will always be a positive attribute. There are two cases where this is most obvious.

For finance and banking industries that work closely with businesses in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Shanghainese and Cantonese language ability is a highly valued asset. Many job specs will directly quote the need for Cantonese or Shanghainese and it is obvious why – they are used widely in areas such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and Kuala Lumpur. Being able to communicate in these languages will greatly improve customer relations and large businesses working with China and Chinese speaking regions know this.

The second example is the need for local dialects in charities and NGOs working with or in China. Dialects such as Tibetan and Sichuanese are highly sought after for aid workers and employees working in NGOs in areas and communities that speak those dialects. Many of the most vulnerable Chinese communities have limited Mandarin speaking skills due to limited or lower levels of education – speaking local dialects, therefore, is crucial for the execution of quick response to natural disasters and for planning and implementing development programmes.

Finally, it shows a specialism and dedication to Chinese language and culture. This will be a stand-out attribute on your CV and it’s likely that employers will find a way to make use of those skills. It’s a long-term investment by diversifying yourself and ensuring you have a niche in the Chinese language job market.

– Cultural Understanding

For anyone that has learnt a language to intermediate level and beyond, the importance of language skills for understanding a place’s history and culture is clear. Nuances in the language can say a lot about a region’s particular experience and the customs, beliefs and traditions of the local people. As such, when studying a particular region it is clear why learning the local language is important. Being able to speak to anyone in the community without a translator is a major asset and will help you gather the information you need.

Moreover, knowledge of Chinese dialects is a prerequisite for collecting oral history records in some regions. Many members of the older generation have limited or no knowledge of Mandarin, meaning that communication in their local dialect is the only way to collect and record oral histories from some key members of the community. These records are incredibly important for understanding and analysing regional histories and social development.

– Communication

While Mandarin is indeed the lingua-franca in China, for many Chinese it is not their first language. Many Chinese children grow up learning their local dialect and only begin to learn Mandarin when they start school. They will continue to speak their local dialect to their family, friends and local community for the rest of their life and it is a central part of their and their community’s identity. No matter where you go in China you will hear families and friends talking to each other in their local dialect. So, it’s obvious that if you are living in China or a Chinese speaking region for any length of time, learning the local dialect would be immensely helpful for communication and integration into the community.

The importance of these dialects extend to Chinese expat communities across the globe. Chinese speakers in Malaysia are often heard speaking Cantonese and Minnanhua. The Chinese population in the Philippines speak a variety of Minnanhua unique to the Philippines. London’s Chinatown is famous for its large Cantonese speaking community and many Chinese restaurant owners in the UK hail from Fujian, speaking Minnanhua and other dialects. These examples highlight that learning dialects can be essential for conversing and understanding overseas Chinese communities.

– So, are Chinese dialects worth learning?

Yes! For practical and economic purposes of course Mandarin is invaluable. However, it does not eliminate the need, importance and value of learning Chinese dialects. A consideration of the economic, cultural and social benefits highlights that there is a genuine value in investing time and effort in learning local Chinese dialects.

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