Say What? A Quick Primer on Chinese Tones and Dialects

There is no way around it: Chinese is hard. There really is no substitute for learning Chinese than moving to China and completely immersing yourself. Still, if you regularly do business with China, it is good to at least know some of the basics of the language and appreciate why it can be so darn hard to master.

The difference between Mandarin and Cantonese

First of all, there are many different dialects and versions of the spoken Chinese language. A common misperception by foreigners is that the dialects are much like variations in accents, such as the difference between a Michigander’s accent and an Alabaman’s. The dialect differences in China are much, much more severe than this. Practically each province, even down to each local city or village, has a different local dialect. Typically, these dialects are unintelligible from one another. For example, someone from Hunan province would not be able to understand someone speaking in the local Sichuan dialect of Chinese.

Luckily, the playing field has been leveled a bit due to the pervasiveness of Mandarin Chinese, which is known as the “common Chinese language,” and is the official language of Mainland China. Another widely spoken “version,” also often referred to as a “dialect,” is Cantonese. It is mostly spoken in the southern part of China, mainly in Guangdong province and places like Hong Kong. Historically, many Chinese that immigrated to America were from Canton, and so many Chinese speakers in the United States come from a Cantonese background.*

As the official language, Mandarin boasts close to 1 billion native speakers. In my experience, native Cantonese speakers are usually also able to understand and speak Mandarin, as opposed to the other way around. I personally learned to speak Mandarin, as do most people that study Chinese. Generally, when a someone says “I am learning Chinese,” they almost always are referring to Mandarin.

How Tones Make You Sound Foreign in China

The trickiest thing about Chinese is the tones. Tones are key to attaching specific meanings to sounds in the Chinese language. The Cantonese dialect operates on nine different tones, whereas Mandarin only has five. The most frustrating problem for English speakers trying communicate in Chinese is that often they can remember and say a word phonetically correctly, but if the tone is wrong, their message might not get across.

I’m not going to go into how to master the tones too much as there are plenty of tutorials online that give you the basics, such as on ChinesePod. If you don’t have any plan to try to speak Chinese fluently, you don’t have to worry about it too much as people can understand your simple phrases. But what you should at least know is that pronouncing these words with the wrong tones is similar to when you hear a non-native English speaker speaking English with the wrong pronunciation. I.e., saying “ni hao,” the Chinese word for “hello,” with the wrong tones is like when you hear someone say “Sank You” as opposed to “Thank you.” You understand the meaning, but you know it sounds funny.

Understanding You Sound Foreign is a Good Thing!

Surprise, surprise, this works both ways! You sound foreign in China! A humbling reality, no doubt, but once you admit and understand it it can be an enormous source of personal growth. I believe accepting this reality makes it easier for you to do business in China as you can better understand and empathize with your Chinese counterparts. Chinese people truly value people with humble attitudes, and admitting you sound foreign sure helps the humble part of your persona come out. Additionally, back at home in America, it will make you more sympathetic to immigrants and other foreigners that struggle to speak English correctly.

Sank You For Reading! Now, go and embrace the foreigner in you by learning a few Chinese phrases and dare to use them wrong!

*I edited this from a previous version of this article, in which I referred to Mandarin as an “overarching dialect.” That is not really true, as Mandarin is the common Chinese language. Other versions, like Sichuanese, Hunanese, etc., are by definition “dialects of Mandarin.” Cantonese is a bit trickier because it is so widely spoken again and has many more tones than Mandarin Chinese, though it is most often referred to as a “widely spoken dialect.”

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