So after I bitchpleased that poor uneducated gweilo in my column “Watch your Language,” I received quite a number of WhatsApps and emails from curious Anglophones, those who actually want to learn Chinese and connect with the local culture. However, they’re very confused with the language issue here in Hong Kong. Should I learn Cantonese or Mandarin in HK? Is Cantonese a dialect?
Let’s review your conceptions of language and dialect. The general consensus is that if two languages are mutually unintelligible (that means incomprehensible), they’re separate, distinct languages. If they’re mutually intelligible, they may be considered dialects of each other.
But then politics always wants to butt in and redefine things. Most linguists joke that a dialect backed up by a government is a language; a language not backed by a government with weapons will be considered… a dialect.
Wait, are these Chinese languages really that different? They all sound the same to me. Ching chong wang dong aaaaaah.
Let’s look at Romanized examples (not official pinyin) of a simple phrase that may be uttered in Hong Kong, Beijing and Taipei daily: “I’m eating with him/her today.”
Cantonese: [ngo gamyat tung keuy sik fān.]
Putonghua: [wo jirrr he ta chrr fan.]
Taiwanese: [gua ginalit ka’ i jiak png]
Do they look or sound like the same bloody language to you? Budding linguists may notice that there are some cognates, but if you’ve never learned another variety of Chinese other than whatever you grew up speaking, you will be going WTF?
So yeah, Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible. My grandparents never learned Mandarin and they never understood, much less spoke, Mandarin. They think Mandarin sounds bizarro. Just like other varieties of Chinese like Shanghainese or Hokkien.
Why is China speaking different languages? Please don’t be American and think of China as one homogenous mass. Imagine China as Europe under the Roman Empire. Every region’s speaking, eating and doing things differently. To communicate with each other, they’re conversing in vulgar Latin, and the literate wrote in Latin. Now the Roman Empire splintered into different nations. Hence France now speaks and writes French; Portugal speaks Portuguese; Italy speaks Italian (with a ton of local dialects); Spain has more than 1 official language (Castilian and Catalan, Basque, as well as Galician and other “dialects” or “languages”—depending on how political or socially/culturally/linguistically aware you are—but that’s another eight cans of whoop-ass worms).
However, China is still one big political entity, kept together by our undying love for awesome food, socialism and fake luxury goods, and ONE single script (forget the traditional & simplified thing first) that binds us all together in cultural camaraderie.
And with this crazy script that isn’t alphabetical, we all write with the same logograms. Think Arabic numerals—the whole world uses them to stand for numerical concepts, but they’re pronounced in each country with that language. The American, Aussie and Brit will look at the squiggly character ‘3’ and say “three.” A Frenchman will say “trois” while a Spaniard will equate it to “tres.” Cantonese speaker will say [sām], a Mandarin speaker will say [san]. And a Japanese person will say [saN] or [mitsu] (they’re so good at math they can count in both Japanese and their version of “Chinese” as well!). So written Standard Chinese is more or less intelligible to any educated Chinese person, and standalone Chinese characters are intelligible to any educated Japanese, (highly) educated Korean and (traditionally) educated Vietnamese person, despite the fact that we will all pronounce the words quite different in our respective languages/dialects.
As for learning Putonghua as a newbie in Hong Kong—FORGET ABOUT IT. This is a Cantonese town.
Face the facts. Nobody in HK wants to converse with you in Putonghua. Maybe shop-girls, waiters and people in the service industry will be forced to speak Mandarin to you. And that’s only if you’re East Asian—if you happen to be white, brown or black, chances are they’ll switch to English even if you’re speaking in Mandarin.
If you’re moving to China later, by all means, start Putonghua classes here because we’ve got excellent teachers and Chinese textbooks. But if you’re just staying in HK, learning Mandarin will NOT help you connect with the local population. You don’t go to Italy to learn French and expect the locals to be impressed. Please go to Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei for an optimal environment conducive to learning Putonghua. That’s what Hongkongers do anyway.
An edited (but never censored) version was published 6th October 2011 in HK Magazine.