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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Peace Corps and Chinese Dialects!

I'm giving some serious thought to joining the Peace Corps. For those of you overseas, the Peace Corps is a volunteer agency run by American government dedicated to worldwide community development through education, community work, environmental protection, and so on. It's a highly respected organization and I am in the midst of filling out my application. It's a 27-month commitment. 3 months training, 24 months serving abroad. I will request to be in China, of course. Language is a really important part of what they do, and I desperately want to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I'm only roughly halfway there. I've got more than enough to review websites for basic learners and to teach beginning Chinese classes (Grasp Chinese's Excellent Program - Review), but I'm only fluent in certain situations.

I'd be honored to join them.

I'll be back to talk about that in other posts.

I know that this is a little behind the curve, but I just saw a website that Lanzhou had been awarded the "Best International Tourist City" in China in May 2010. Wow!

Check it out here! Also, check out the construction of an "old street" in Lanzhou. They are trying to recreate the area to look like the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Click here to read.


This is what I actually wanted to talk about today - "The Myth of the Chinese Language"

Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as the Chinese language in the sense that if you learn one particular set of words/phrases/grammar (ie. a language), you can have a conversation with any native speaker from that country. Example, if you learn the English phrase, “Hey, do you have any plans tonight?”, you can ask any single person in America and they will understand and respond in a way the asker will understand. This is not exactly the case in China. 
China is a very big and very regional country, especially with dialects.

In China, there is a standard language, 普通话, otherwise known as Mandarin, but many older citizens cannot speak it because they never learned it in school. Older citizens and citizens in far-flung rural of China speak their own 方言, or dialect, and nothing else. 
Mandarin Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect. "Speak good Mandarin, convenient for you, me, him."

Interestingly enough, if you speak Mandarin, nearly every Chinese person will understand you, but their response to you will be in dialect, so you will probably not understand it.....I met that situation so many times while I was traveling in China. The places with the most standard Mandarin that I came across were Beijing and Lanzhou.

In contrast to America, every place in China has its own dialect. Nearly every single city in China has its own language, which is called “[insert city name] Hua”. There is Beijing Hua, Shanghai Hua, Lanzhou Hua, Kunming Hua, etc.. There are even cities which have several different dialects within their respective districts. For example, Wenzhou, a manufacturing and industrial city in coastal Zhejiang Province, has several different dialects within its city limits. 

The overall Wenzhou Hua is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult dialects to master and was used by the Chinese to send secret messages to each other during Japan’s World War II invasion of China. Even the Chinese who were working for Japan could not decode the messages because the dialect was too difficult to understand. 

"Due to its unique grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, the language is basically impossible for any non-local to understand." - From Wikipedia. It's even got it's own article: "Wenzhounese"

However, the interesting thing about these language families is that although the pronunciation vastly differs, a written conversation using Chinese characters can take place with no problem because the characters always carry the same meaning. For example:

These characters always, always, always, mean restroom - no matter how they are pronounced in dialect.

The problem of dialects is a frustrating one for any foreigner learning Chinese because even if they have become fluent in Mandarin, they still may be unable to communicate with some Chinese. Do not become discouraged, as even the Chinese have difficulty understanding. 
For example: these people here.

The guy is named Benjamin and the girl is named Christina. I lived in Lanzhou, in Gansu Province. Benjamin is from Huan County, Gansu Province. Christina is from the neighboring Province of Shaanxi.  Benjamin's parents could not speak Mandarin - only their dialect. Christina even had a very difficult time understanding them - maybe understanding 60% of the time. For me, it was pretty much impossible. I had learned Mandarin with a tiny sprinkling of Lanzhou Hua. 

I don't really have a conclusion here, but yeah, the sheer number of dialects in Chinese is just ridiculous. It's a hard situation to be in if you were just starting to learn Chinese and you get thrown into all these ridiculously impossible language situations. But don't let it get you down, just keep trying, and eventually you will catch on if you've got someone to help you out. 

If you're interested in learning Chinese, check this program out!

Read My Grasp Chinese Website Review

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