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About Chinese Language and Dialects

Language is pretty chaotic in China. 1.3 billion people speak over 100 dialects. You think these dialects are similar because they are after all Chinese? Wrong. Kam can stand right next to a Chinese speaking an unknown dialect but fails to eavesdrop. Makes no difference if that person is specking a jungle language of the Amazon.

The standard language in China is, of course, Mandarin. But if you take a few lessons of Mandarin and think you can get around China alright. Wrong again. Mandarin is just a standard. If you have gone to enough parts of China, you will find that everyone does it differently - usually with heavy and unrecognizable accent. Honestly, I can't remember any top Chinese leader speaks perfect Mandarin at all. And I couldn't make out the late leader Deng's speech without subtitles. Someday, when China becomes more democratic, someone would step forward and tell the leaders "hey, your mandarin is terrible. Take a class before you go on TV."

Another very common dialect is Cantonese. It's wildly spoken in southern China, especially Guangzhou (formerly Canton), Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and the Chinese communities in other parts of Asia, and even in Chinese communities in North America. Why is it that popular? It could be that the southern people were the earliest to go abroad. And the dialect was the least thing they could bring with them.

Now a little resume on Kam's language ability:

  • perfect Cantonese
  • funny-but-practical Mandarin (and funny doesn't mean humorous here )
  • more-then-ok English

That is a survival package for a Hong Konger who faces increasing opportunities from the growing China economy.

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