Language vs Dialect

Kunyao Kuang

Inspired by the seminar and class discussion in class, I would like to share a similar case happened in China.

I was born in southern China, a city near Guangzhou, a Cantonese spoken area. All my family and neighborhoods speak Cantonese thus it seems that I was born to know it. Moreover, I grew up with the influential popular culture of Hong Kong since 1990s. Thus, the identity of Cantonese has rooted deeply in my mind.

When I was in primary school, Mandarin started to enter my life. The Mandarin promotion policy was carried out in 1980s, strictly adopted in 1990s among schools, administrations, transportations and all public areas. Since then, Mandarin became an official language and the others were all dialects. (An interesting point from my teammate is that she thought dialect is viewed as being subordinated to a language, containing the sense of discrimination to some extent. Language is regarded as paramount while dialects are secondary.)

From the official posters I could tell, at that time, speaking Mandarin represented being well-educated, loyal to our country while speaking dialects represented being rude, lack-of-education, and localism. Even worse, insisting on speaking dialects and rejecting learning Mandarin, was regarded as an action of betraying or nationality separatism. The policy and some of its actions had drew Mandarin and dialects to a hostile position in some provinces, especially in Guangdong.

Unsatisfied with the policy, Cantonese people tended to protect Cantonese dialect and Cantonese culture to the upmost. Lots of resistance and movements came out since then. Although Mandarin is taught in schools, leant by everyone, Cantonese people persist in using their own dialect in transportations broadcast and TV news till now. The awareness of reserving and promoting local culture leads Cantonese to be the most powerful dialect in China.

Even so, I have noticed that the following phenomena show that Cantonese has been weakened and replaced gradually:

  1. The youth tend to mix Mandarin words in their Cantonese speaking, in order to replace the vocabulary they don’t know or forget.
  2. Parts of the young kids they can understand Cantonese but they can’t speak, and some of them even refused to speak.

There is always a dilemma between popularizing the official language and protecting dialects. For the whole society, popularizing official language is essential for regularity. For individuals, learning the official language can benefit them in study, career and traveling. Dialects fall in a weak position inevitably, which represents the weaken status of local culture. To balance the two items is a tough task.

However, the policy from the government may not deal with this issue perfectly. Individuals should take up the responsibility for it. For instance, the family guidance and education may help a lot? I am still looking for more solutions about this issue.





7 thoughts on “Language vs Dialect”

  1. Hi Kunyao,
    Thank you for sharing your reflections on the positions of Cantonese and Mandarin. It is a clear example of how a standard is socially and politically constructed. In your last paragraph, you point to the importance of the role of families and individuals, that language policy is not just a top-down, government affair. You’re absolutely right! To really understand how a policy works, it is important to pay attention to how people are living the policy.


    1. Kunyao: Hello Alison, thanks for you comment. Yes, I should pay more attention to the contexts of the case as you mentioned, in order to better understand the policy and its outcome. Thanks to your class, I think I have found out one of my interested field now:)


  2. (by Jia Pu) Dear Kunyao, since we are both Chinese and from a region where Mandarin is not spoken as frequently as our own dialects, I can understand the situation you mentioned in your post. People in my city, especially students, are still greatly encouraged to use Mandarin both at school and at home, which has become such a common phenomenon that few people would question it. Some parents even teach their kids Mandarin as soon as they can speak. However, many parents are maintaining our local culture in the way of teaching their kids to speak Chengdu dialect. Thus quite a lot of children are now using Mandarin at school and Chengdu dialect at home, which is kind of a balance between the national policy and local tradition. I agree with what you said in the last paragraph that responsibility should be shouldered by each Individual and that could finally make a difference.


    1. Kunyao: Dear Jia Pu, thanks for your sharing, which inspired me to think more. I have been to Chengdu once, and I found out I really enjoy Chengdu dialect – I even tried to learn it although most of time I still couldn’t understand. LOL. Yes, I agree with you that there is a balance between Mandarin and Chengdu dialect or Cantonese in China now. I assume that it’s related to the large population, strong economy and regional culture in Chengdu and Guangdong, which are two influential cities in China. Some small and remote areas may not be so lucky.


  3. Hey Kunyao,

    The situation you’re describing is common for regional languages and dialects around the world. A huge factor in maintaining the vitality of these languages, and in some cases revitalizing them, is the policies enacted by the dominant culture surrounding them. There are other factors, such as the density of population, and the strength of activism in support of continuing the language’s vitality and institutional presence. I wrote a paper on Catalan and Basque languages in both Spain and France last year on the relative strength of the two languages within the two countries, and the factors that have influenced this. I’d be happy to e-mail it to you if it’s of interest. Basque and Catalan happen to be much stronger in Spain than France, and the reasons for this become clear, especially when looking at their policies towards regional languages in the two countries both historically and at the present time.


    1. Kunyao: Thanks for your sharing, which is really insightful and valuable. Although similar cases happen all around the world, the contexts are quite different and their outcome could be totally different. That’s maybe the reason why we are studying every single case – there are always some successful cases that we can use for reference, and some painful cases that we should learn how to avoid. So yes, of course, I am quite interested in this topic and I would like to learn from your article. Please e-mail me. ( Thanks again!


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