Chinese learners inevitably face the dilemma of Mandarin vs. Dialects. Mandarin Chinese is what you might call the “common tongue” of China. However, dialects abound in the middle kingdom, so Mandarin is meant to be a unifying language. The closest native dialect to “standard” Mandarin is in Shijiazhuang (capital of Hebei Province), and it is still only 91% Mandarin. Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Chinese word for Mandarin is 普通话 pǔtōng huà the “universal language.”
MANDARIN VS. DIALECTS – WHY MANDARIN WINS
Caveat: We’re not saying “don’t learn a dialect,” we’re merely making the argument for learning Mandarin so you can make a more informed decision.
1. COMMUNICATE WITH (ALMOST) ALL CHINESE PEOPLE
Learning Mandarin means that you will be able to communicate with people who speak other dialects and come from different parts of China (or other parts of the world entirely). If you learn regionally accented Chinese, this will be harder. On the flip side, many regional accents have significant similarities to standard Mandarin, and so they become easy to learn from a standard foundation. There are indeed some people (usually from older generations) who do not speak Mandarin, but almost all Chinese people born after 1970 are fluent Mandarin speakers.
2. OFFICIAL POSITIONS REQUIRE MANDARIN
If you ever want to use Chinese officially someday, standard pronunciation is often required. Mandarin is the language of business, and you’ll notice that even the president speaks in a 标准 (biāozhǔn – ‘standard’) way. Official usage of Mandarin likely leads to the next perception:
STANDARDIZED CHINESE SOUNDS MORE EDUCATED THAN REGIONAL VARIANTS
This perception is regrettable and mostly misguided, but it seems a human universal that those who speak the dominant accent or dialect perceive different dialects as less educated. By focusing on Mandarin, you can guarantee that you will not inadvertently fall prey to this unconscious prejudice.
MANDARIN VS. DIALECTS – THE FOUNDATIONS FOR SUCCESS
Many dialects in China are beautiful and have a local flavor that is quite charming. We live in Sichuan province, and Sichuanese has several colloquial terms that add a layer of uniqueness to this particular region. For this reason, we recommend taking time to learn some (or a great deal) of the local dialect surrounding you. We merely advise that you start from a foundation of Mandarin. In the same way that learning Spanish is more comfortable to learn for Portuguese speakers than it is for Japanese speakers, learning the dialect will be far easier if your Mandarin is up to scratch.