Stop Asking People if They Speak Mandarin or Cantonese

Stop Asking People if They Speak Mandarin or Cantonese

As someone who speaks Chinese, there is one question that has always irritated me: ?Do you mean you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?? I am here to tell you why you should stop asking people this.

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It doesn?t make you look smart

One of the reasons that this question bugs me is that most people who ask it don?t know anything about Mandarin or Cantonese other than that there is something called Mandarin and something called Cantonese. My overall impression is that most people aren?t asking because they actually care and are curious about which language I speak, but because they want to subtly signal how they are well-educated and cultured because they know that both Mandarin and Cantonese exist. To someone who speaks Chinese, however, asking this question will not win you any intellectual brownie points.

Chinese is not simply divided into Mandarin and Cantonese

The Chinese language is not something that is simply divided into Mandarin and Cantonese. There are other widely-spoken Chinese languages such as Wu, Min Nan, Hakka, and Jin, to name a few. Asking someone if they speak Mandarin or Cantonese is kind of like if someone said they were from Europe and you asked them if they speak French or Italian. It doesn?t make sense to break things down into an ?either/or question? when there are more than two options available.

?But aren?t Mandarin and Cantonese just dialects of the same language??

No. Although Cantonese and Mandarin have many similarities, they are not mutually intelligible. This means that, presuming one has no significant exposure or training, a speaker of Mandarin will understand little to nothing of Cantonese and vice-versa. To give an analogy, Cantonese and Mandarin are just as different (or moreso) as French and Spanish are from one another.

If people say they speak ?Chinese?, they probably speak Mandarin

While this may be one of the more controversial points that I make here, I would say that much more often than not, if someone says they speak ?Chinese?, then they speak Mandarin. They may speak another Chinese language (like Cantonese or Min Nan) as their mother tongue, but probably speak Mandarin as well, given its widespread status as a lingua franca. Besides, if we are to believe the statistics, there are around 900 million native speakers of Mandarin. No other Chinese language comes close in terms of number of speakers.

There are exceptions to this rule. Many Cantonese speakers who live in or originate from Hong Kong may not speak Mandarin. And some make a point of not speaking Mandarin, due to various political and sociolinguistic issues that I will not detail here. In my experience, however, most people who speak Cantonese will say so, avoiding any confusion in the first place.

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What are you going to do with that information?

Ultimately, when most people ask whether I speak Mandarin or Cantonese, it?s a completely empty question. ?Oh? cool.? ? that?s typically the response I get when I tell people that I speak Mandarin. Why? Because if they don?t know anything about Chinese, then the answer hasn?t given them any new information.

I understand that some people may have very good reasons to ask whether I speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Maybe they studied abroad in Hong Kong and want to practice their Cantonese with me. Maybe they are a linguist or Chinese-speaker who knows all about the complexities I hinted at here. And I understand that it?s probably just a perfectly innocent question that many people ask without thinking too much.

But you should probably stop.


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