Before you read my post, I would like to offer some background knowledge.
- Standard Mandarin is the official language in China. While Chinese people use simplified characters in writing, they may speak a variety of dialects depending on where they are. These dialects are spoken in different ways. I found a video that presents how Mandarin and some dialects are spoken and sound differently. Please check it out via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynbRQeeEma4
- In China, 4 or 5 undergraduate students share one dormitory together, which indicates they do not have their private room.
Every time I encounter a Shanxier outside Shanxi province, they do not believe I am a Shanxier because of my inability to speak Shanxi dialect. While “a single linguistic choice can mark you as a member of (or let you affiliate with) a particular community” (Van Herk, 2012, p. 97), I therefore believe that I lose some of my identity as a Shanxier and I sometimes feel isolated because I fail to speak Shanxi dialect.
“Seriously, are you not able to speak Shanxi dialect?”
“Sorry, I am not able to, even though I am able to understand it perfectly well.”
Whenever I have such a conversation with either my friends or other Shanxiers, they do not believe me. My best friend comes from Sichuan province. I still remember her surprise when I told her that I am not able to speak Shanxi dialect. She said: “You know, when I encounter a Sichuaner in Beijing, I speak Sichuan dialect automatically because I feel like I am home. It really connects us together and I feel good to speak it. Now, you told me that you cannot speak Shanxi dialect, that is absolutely weird!”
However, the truth is that my parents have been speaking Mandarin to me since I was born, I am thereby not able to speak Shanxi dialect. Furthermore, they told me that Mandarin is the official language in China. If everyone speaks it for daily communications, and I should do the same. Although my mom speaks Shanxi dialect with my grandmother and her friends, she never teaches me how to speak it. When I proposed if she could teach me Shanxi dialect, she refused to do so because she believed that it sounds unpleasant and rude. At that time, she also did not allow me to learn it from my classmates or friends, otherwise she would be disappointed. Instead, my parents encouraged me to speak Mandarin and they even managed to persuade me that Mandarin sounds more euphonious than Shanxi dialect. Since then, I only speak Mandarin.
As time goes by, Mandarin does facilitate my daily communications nationwide, but it also brings me some troubles. For instance, I could not call my parents in my dormitory when I was an undergraduate student because my roommates could understand what I was talking about. As a result, I had to call my parents outside our dormitory in order to keep secrets. However, my roommates speak both Mandarin and their local dialects. While a roommate of mine telephoned his parents in Hunan dialect happily, another one spoke Anhui dialect on the phone with his girlfriend (Hunan dialect and Anhui dialect are spoken very differently). I felt I was deaf because I did not know their dialects at all, even though they were really engaged in the communications! (I did not intend to listen to their conversations because they just happened to speak in the room.)
Although I am not able to speak Shanxi dialect, I gradually picked up some Beijing dialect when I did my BA in Beijing, which went really beyond my parents’ expectation. Mandarin mainly originates from it and some other northern dialects, so their pronunciations are quite similar. Therefore, I learned Beijing dialect automatically and have blended it in my spoken Mandarin. Only the locals will identify that I am not a Beijinger because of my accent. While I communicate with someone else, even my mother should tell me that I speak Beijing dialect like a Bejinger does. That is why I am often regarded as a Beijinger rather than a Shanxier, and I have to tell other people my “interesting” story of language learning.
Honestly, I believe that my parents made the wrong decision on my language learning. Unfortunately, I do not think I have an opportunity to learn Shanxi dialect as I am too old to learn it very well. I am from Shanxi where my identity and belongingness lie, but I still feel upset when someone finds that I am not able to speak its dialect.
Van Herk, G. (2012). Ethnicity. In Gerard. V. H. (Ed.), What is sociolinguistics (pp. 96-105). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.