What Linguistic Diversity Feels Like

We often think of “linguistic diversity” referring to the existence of minority languages in an area. But it can also refer to the varying dialects of a region, which in China would include topolects, AKA 方言. When you throw various forms of language together in a single geographical area, they don’t stay distinct; they bleed into each other in interesting ways.

Here are a few anecdotes about that, and what we’re potentially losing when a large region’s language becomes one shade of plain vanilla.

Beijing to Hangzhou

I learned the basics of Mandarin in Hangzhou, where not so many people speak “standard Chinese.” I had to constantly check dictionaries to make sure I was learning the proper pronunciation of new words, because the pinyin sounds “ch/sh/zh” were always being pronounced as “c/s/z”, as southern Chinese tend to do. This was annoying it times, but it didn’t bother me too much, because it was simply the way things were.

Fast forward a few years. I witnessed students of Mandarin visiting Hangzhou from Beijing, absolutely livid because no one in Hangzhou spoke “proper Chinese,” and they couldn’t understand anything. They were used to extremely standard Mandarin, with a bit of Beijing dialect for flavor, but not this.

The whole thing was amusing to me, because not only could I easily understand what they could not, but when I visited Beijing, the locals were so easy to understand that it was surreal, as if every word that came out of every Beijinger’s mouth was a recording from a textbook dialog.

(Note: Americans, when visiting the UK for the first time, may have a similar experience to these students of Chinese in Beijing.)

Fading Tolerance for the Nonstandard

When we had our second baby, we hired a yuesao (post-natal caregiver, 月嫂). We call her Zhang Ayi. Zhang Ayi is great, but she’s from Jiangsu, and she has an accent that can be hard for me to understand.

At first I was thinking, “my Chinese must be worse than I thought,” because after all these years in China, a little accent shouldn’t throw me off too much. It made me feel better, then, to know that my wife (a Shanghai native) also has trouble understanding Zhang Ayi, and fairly often. Zhang Ayi manages to speak in a way that sounds standard, but you just can’t understand it. (As a non-native speaker, it really makes me doubt my listening comprehension!) It’s a different flavor of “nonstandard” than I’m used to, but it affects even a native speaker’s comprehension.

The interesting thing is that my wife’s parents (one from Shanghai, one from Hubei) have no trouble understanding anything Zhang Ayi says. Their generation grew up in a China with wildly heterogenous Mandarin spoken (remember Mao’s Mandarin?), and they just have a much, much higher tolerance for strong accents. This tolerance is fading fast in the younger generations.


Mute Shanghainese

It’s been widely reported that Shanghainese (上海话) is dying. A lot of Shanghainese parents are taking great pains to use Shanghainese with their children to make sure that this cultural heritage does not die out.

The problem is that a dialect/topolect is not merely a family issue; it’s a community issue. And what’s happening with these families is that their children do indeed comprehend Shanghainese, and can usually say a few words and phrases, but they essentially do not speak it. Only standard Chinese is allowed in schools, and that makes it “weird” for Shanghainese kids to talk to each other in anything other than standard Chinese. Shanghainese does not feel necessary or useful to the children.

What’s even worse, even if a Shanghainese parent goes the extra mile and insists that only Shanghainese is spoken in the home, raising her own child to be 100% fluent in Shanghainese, her child will likely be the member of a society where no one else of his generation actually speaks Shanghainese. And one fluent speaker can’t keep Shanghainese going.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Well put. I’m curious about where in Jiangsu Zhang Ayi is from. I’d guess somewhere east of Xuzhou. I still have a lot of trouble with the Mandarin around Lianyungang even after knowing a lot of people that speak it and having quite a fair amount of exposure for someone who’s never been there.

  2. Is there a standard definition of what exactly 方言 means? What most people here in Zhangjiagang call 方言 is something with a pretty low level of mutual intelligibility with Mandarin. The c/z/s pronunciation on the other hand seems to be viewed as just a slight accent within standard Mandarin. I’ve witnessed people swtiching back and forth between full-blown 方言 and 普通话, but still retaining the c/z/s accent when speaking Mandarin.

    Personally I feel that c/z/s is just takes a little bit of time to get used to, but once you’ve acclimated to hearing it you have no trouble understanding (as opposed to the 方言 spoken here, which sounds like a totally different language).

    On the other hand however, I’ve heard some people (especially in other areas of China) speak what they themselves called 方言, yet even I as an intermediate level Mandarin speaker was able to understand a fair amount of what they were saying.

    I guess it all just goes to show that language is a complicated thing.

  3. I wonder if what Lucas said about being able to understand some people talking in dialect but not others is partly a generational thing. I have found I can understand my wife fairly well when she speaks in Jiangxi dialect, I understand her cousins and siblings less well, sometimes I understand her parents, but I hardly ever understand anything anyone from her grandparents generation says. Maybe Mandarin has leaked into what some people think of as their local dialect.

  4. Hi John,

    You bring up a great point in this entry! I studied abroad in Taiwan and I noticed the same issue with the younger generation learning Taiwanese.

    One of my good friends from the US, she grew up speaking Shanghainese with her folks and she doesn’t speak any Mandarin. The situation is hilarious for me because when she comes to China, she can only get around in Shanghai. Anywhere outside of the city, she won’t be able to communicate with other people. Whereas I am a non-native speaker of Chinese and I can get around China on my own.

    I also agree younger generation Chinese are not as tolerant of accents. Even as a non-native speaker, I wouldn’t exactly say they can tolerate my “Taiwanese” sounding Chinese. Since most of the learn English at a young age, they will automatically switch and try to speak to me in English; even though I am in China to learn Chinese! Sigh, sometimes I wish English wasn’t the “international language.”

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