Mandarin or Dialect?

I think it’s safe to assume that there’s a generally held opinion that learning Mandarin is easier than other Chinese dialects.

Some people might perhaps hold that this is simply incorrect received wisdom; that all languages are equal in difficultly, that all languages should take the same amount of time to learn.  That Mandarin, specifically, is no harder than any other dialect of Chinese, and that to say anything to the contrary is mere opinion.

In the scenario where you’re learning both spoken dialect and written Chinese to native level fluency, I’m going to show that this is demonstrably false premise.

The Proof

In fact, considering only Chinese dialects, it’s very simple.

Since we don’t have to worry much about English cognates (there aren’t very many), we can assume a linear fit between the number of words to learn per dialect and the time required to learn them.  In other words, the more words there are to learn, the more time you need to spend to learn them.  So far, so obvious, right?

Additionally, we can assume that the more grammatical structures there are per dialect, the more time we need to invest learning and practising them.

Now, we mustn’t forget that 99%+ of modern Chinese is written using a special language based on Mandarin.  Even if you learn a dialect, you must also learn written Chinese (remember the original conditions) and so we’re effectively learning two languages.

Here’s a table comparing Mandarin and Cantonese.

Language Similarity to Written Chinese Time required
Mandarin Spoken and written language is 99% the same, both grammatically and lexically. ~1.01
Cantonese Cantonese vocabulary is ~60% similar to Written Chinese; grammar is 80% similar. ~1.6

[I’m only familiar with stats for Cantonese, but I assume they’re comparable for other dialects; as for the source, I’m not sure where I read about the various percentages, but if I ever find it out I’ll let you guys know.]

The last column is a somewhat arbitrary multiplier of the amount of time it takes to learn Written Chinese completely using any set of dialect readings.  Cantonese has a higher multiplier than Mandarin because you’re learning two sets of partially overlapping grammar and vocabulary.  In other words, it should theoretically take about 60% longer to learn Cantonese to fluency than Mandarin.

Why 60% longer and not less?  When you speak Mandarin, you practice written patterns and vice versa.  When you speak Cantonese, it does almost nothing for your reading or writing – and vice versa.

There are other things too – no such thing as Cantonese subtitles out there, so looking up Canto-specific vocab from TV shows is harder than for Mandarin.  What does this mean?  More time is needed.

So is it impossible to learn another dialect without Mandarin?

Obviously not.  Anyone can see that it’s possible, but takes longer. Hey, even I can speak Cantonese and can read at a 中學 level, and I am far from the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

The Catch

You just have to look at what’s available to you and work with that.  If you can’t find a native to help you with the dialect you want to learn?  Maybe Mandarin would be a better initial investment of time because speakers are easier to find.  Only Mandarin textbooks available?  Ditto.

If you have a legitimate reason for learning a Chinese dialect and you have the resources available to learn it, go ahead.  Otherwise, don’t try to do hard or impossible things for the sake of doing them.

It’s your own time you’re wasting.

P.S. Something else I forgot to mention: learning a dialect after Mandarin is, I think, probably faster overall than doing it the other way round for 外国人, because of the already-mentioned strong link between Mandarin and Written Chinese.  Just something else to consider~


4 thoughts on “Mandarin or Dialect?

  1. Pingback: Opinions about Language Learning « Thousand Mile Journey

  2. Pingback: Mandarin Learner: Best of the Web for January 3rd | Bill (葛威)

  3. Pingback: Final Thoughts on Learning Chinese | Thousand Mile Journey

  4. Alternatively, many so-called dialects (“other Chinese languages” might be a more accurate description) have a closer relationship with written Chinese, particularly full-form characters, than Mandarin, because they have not absorbed the later shifts in sounds that the modern standard Mandarin has.

    Some other aspects of interest to learners might be the source languages for learning materials. The overwhelming presence of what can sometimes be slightly odd US English in Taiwanese learning materials, for example, might make a literary approach to learning Mandarin more difficult than just using audio resources and Romanised writing for learning Southern Min.

    As you said, “You just have to look at what’s available to you and work with that.” Too true!

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