The Difference between Written and Spoken Chinese

Last time, we featured the difference between simplified and traditional Chinese characters. In this issue, let's take a look at the difference between written and spoken Chinese.

The Difference between Written and Spoken Chinese

Although the Chinese spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese, they write in the same way as in standard Chinese (Mandarin), albeit in traditional (and not simplified) characters. When it is read aloud, however, the pronunciation is Cantonese, so it can only be understood by someone familiar with Cantonese.

What should be noted here is that Chinese can be understood, whether in Taiwan or in mainland China, regardless of the variety of Chinese that is spoken.

For example, Hong Kong sounds like “heong gong” when pronounced in Cantonese, but the same Chinese characters sound like “siang gang” when pronounced in standard Chinese. For this reason, it would probably be possible for someone not familiar with Chinese to understand that a person is referring to Hong Kong if it is pronounced by someone speaking Cantonese. Meanwhile, unless someone is familiar with Mandarin, they would have trouble imagining that “siang gang” actually refers to Hong Kong. Even among the Chinese, communication sometimes does not go very smoothly if they are from different areas in China.

Differences due to Dialect

Pronunciation is not the only difference found between dialects. There are differences in vocabulary and grammar as well. If you look at the following example, you will see that the difference between dialects is not simply that the same string of Chinese characters is pronounced differently according to the spoken dialect. (Chinese characters are ideograms rather than phonograms. Therefore, they contain no information related to how the characters are pronounced. In the case of Chinese, each character is pronounced in ways unique to each dialect. It is also interesting to see how the pronunciation has been assimilated into other languages like Japanese and Korean. Check out how the numbers from 1 to 10 are pronounced if you are interested to know more.)

Examples of Differences in Grammar and Vocabulary According to Dialect (Spoken Chinese)

Comparison of “I am eating rice now” as spoken in Mandarin and Cantonese

Mandarin: 我 现在 在 吃 饭。 Wo xianzai zai chi fan. (I/now/am -ing/eat/rice)
Cantonese: 我 而家 食 緊 飯。 Ngo yiga sek gang fan. (I/now/eat/am -ing/rice)

Note, however, that this is a difference as seen in spoken Chinese. Irrespective of the dialect spoken by the individual, Chinese must be written in the manner of standard Chinese (Mandarin), regardless of whether simplified or traditional Chinese characters are used.

For example, the sentence above would be written in traditional Chinese characters as follows by an individual from Hong Kong.

Example of Chinese as Written in Hong Kong

我 現在 在 吃 飯。 Ngo yinjoi joi hek fan. (I/now/am -ing/eat/rice)

Note: This sentence, written in traditional Chinese, is the same as that in the example for Mandarin (written in simplified Chinese) shown in the previous example.
However, note that the pronunciation is very different between Mandarin and Cantonese.

China: A Multilingual Society

As you have seen, in regions where Mandarin isn’t spoken, people need to learn how to write in a way (Mandarin or standard Chinese) that differs greatly from the language spoken in daily life.

This is something that is often seen in other parts of the world. For those living in a society where only one language is spoken, we can only imagine how much of a burden it can be for Chinese people to learn their national language in school.

When we receive Chinese translation requests from our clients, they sometimes ask us to translate it into “complicated Chinese.” In most cases, they want us to translate it using traditional Chinese (used in locales like Hong Kong and Taiwan).

China is a multiethnic country. There are 55 ethnic minority groups living in China in addition to the dominant Han Chinese group. Ethnic minorities often have their own writing system and language. The number of ethnic minorities and languages increases further if Taiwan is included. However, they are all required to learn standard Chinese (Mandarin). Therefore, China is considered a complex and multilingual society.

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