• Karin Szu

Language Tutorial: Mandarin Chinese vs. Shanghainese

Chinese is often deemed the most difficult language to learn. The thought of having to learn thousands of characters can be a daunting task for any beginner tackling the language for the very first time. However, the Chinese language we often refer to in conversation is in fact only one out of a hundred more dialects spoken in China today. Standard Chinese, commonly also called Mandarin or Putonghua in Chinese, remains the sole official language in China. Though, if you ever visit Hong Kong or Shanghai, you may notice that different regional variants coexist with Standard Mandarin and are very much part of daily conversation.



The Chinese language can be loosely divided into seven groups which are Mandarin, Wu, Min, Xiang, Gan, Hakka and Yue. Among the most well-known dialects are Shanghainese, part of the Wu language family, and Cantonese, belonging to the Yue family. Many of these Chinese dialects do share some degree of intelligibility and can be understood, at the most basic level, by speakers outside the language family. Some, however, are mutually intelligible. This continues to prompt much debate in linguistic circles as to whether these local variants should be called dialects or languages. In the following, we will focus on the Shanghainese dialect and share some of the intricacies that make this variant quite different from Standard Chinese.



Shanghainese is spoken by approximately 14 million people today, predominantly, as the name suggests, in Shanghai and around the Yangtze river delta area. However, as there is currently little dedicated effort to preserve Shanghainese, some fear that the dialect will become extinct within the next 50 years. On a technical level, Shanghainese is said to be mutually unintelligible with Mandarin or Cantonese. To be more specific, Shanghainese only shares 29% lexical similarity with Standard Chinese, making it quite difficult for speakers outside the Wu language family to fully grasp the dialect. While it is possible to translate Shanghainese phrases into Mandarin, there are certain words in Shanghainese that are written with characters that would make no sense when read in Mandarin. Finally, perhaps the most distinguishable difference between Shanghainese and Mandarin is the pronunciation. Shanghainese sounds, quite frankly, different. To get a feel for how Shanghainese sounds like, check out this video on YouTube:



Below we will highlight some of the differences in vocabulary and pronunciation as well as provide some basic phrases to get you through a simple conversation.




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