Language or Dialect

March 2, 2017
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“Write in standard characters, speak in standard Mandarin” is a slogan in every Chinese school. We, Chinese students, are taught how useful and excellent our Mandarin is but barely anything about Chinese dialects. Mandarin is the only official language of the People’s Republic of China, but dialects are not. Mandarin is popularized earnestly by the Chinese government, but dialects, in contrast, are not encouraged to speak in schools or offices. However, is the value of Mandarin really higher than that of dialects?

My answer to it was positive when I was still in a primary school. Although my first language is Cantonese, a dialect of Guangdong province and Hong Kong, I considered Cantonese rural and inferior. As a standardized good student who strictly followed the school rule of speaking Mandarin, I never spoke Cantonese at school, which though was my first language, at school. When I was asked whether I could speak Cantonese, I would respond with confidence and pride, “No, I can only speak Mandarin.” As the official language of China spoken by 1.3 billion Chinese people, it was, from my perspective, superior to Cantonese, which is merely a minor dialect. Plus, I regarded Mandarin as the symbol of literacy and scholarliness since all my teachers, all scientists in videos I watched, and all characters in cartoons I enjoyed spoke Mandarin. In contrast, passing across a crowded and noisy grocery market, I would hear sellers shouting what they sell and the corresponding prices stridently in Cantonese; walking in the countryside in which lived many the elder Guangzhou people, I was likely to get angry by loud and clamant voices about family trifles. Both common scenarios made the rural and annoying impression of Cantonese on me.

This was why I laughed at a boy at class who frequently spoke Cantonese. I called him bumpkin and subsequently we started a debate about which language was better, Cantonese or Mandarin.

“This is Guangzhou, the root of Cantonese. You are silly enough not to adopt Cantonese.” He shouted to me furiously.

“Stupid bumpkin! You are smart, aren’t you, to use the language of a countryman? Sorry, I am that foolish to use the language of our motherland, a language whose users are just millionfold of Cantonese,” I replied with disdain.
He wanted to fight back, but he could not find any evidence stronger than my number of “millionfold” and thus walked away. Other Cantonese-speakers in class were also angry at me and chose to isolate me from then on. Enjoying the victory of debate, I got more proud of my Mandarin skills.

However, all has changed dramatically since my journey to Chinatown in New York during a summer camp.

Chinatown was full of signs in traditional Chinese, not simplified Chinese I should learn at school. I somehow predicted that something aberrant was about to happen. Walking into a food store, the storekeeper came to me with a big smile, “Welcome! I guess you are from China, right? Nei siang mai di me yea (What do you want to buy)?”

“Qiao Ke Li(‘Chocolate’ in Mandarin).” Seeing her a Chinese, I replied in Mandarin, but I didn’t notice that her sentence was in Cantonese but not Mandarin.

“Sorry, are you speaking Mandarin? I can’t understand Mandarin. Say it in Cantonese or English?” Her warm smile disappeared.

I was shocked by her words. I knew many people who could speak Mandarin but not Cantonese but never met somebody who could speak Cantonese but not Mandarin.

“Er…Zhu…Ju Gu Lei (“Chocolate” in Cantonese).” I replied with slight difficulty in Cantonese, my first language but now an unfamiliar one since I had rarely used it.

(The following conversations were all in Cantonese)
“Ah, you could speak Cantonese.”
“Excuse me; I just wonder why you can speak Cantonese but not Mandarin?”

“Well… when I immigrated to the US, no one in my hometown, Taishan(a small Cantonese-speaking city in Guangdong Province), knew any Mandarin. So I never got to learn it. But it didn’t matter. Every Chinese resident in Chinatown here speaks Cantonese. I know Mandarin may be useful in China. But outside China, especially in ethnic Chinese clusters, Cantonese is much more useful.”

“How can that be? Cantonese is only a dialect of China!”

When I was skeptical of her words, a foreigner in the store joined our conversation in, astoundingly, articulate Cantonese!

“Kid, Mandarin may be more often in China. However, Cantonese is more like the language of ancient Chinese, tied to thousands of years of Chinese history. It is a window to learn great Chinese culture. When I was deciding whether to learn Mandarin or Cantonese, I was told that ‘Mandarin was more useful as a national language; Cantonese was useless as a dialect,’ but in the end I still decided to study Cantonese, because I love Chinese culture. I’ve planned to take a Ph. D in Chinese culture in Hong Kong next year… Kid, don’t forget your Cantonese. If you want to communicate with ethnic Chinese in U.S. or study Chinese culture or literature, Cantonese will do you a great favor.”

I was standing there, shocked by his words, for a long time. That was the first time I learnt about the historical, cultural, and literature value behind Cantonese. After going back to my dormitory, I spent a whole night browsing the Internet about the origin, diffusion, distribution, value and stories about Cantonese. The answers reshaped my values of language and life. Facing my computer tiredly though, I felt energetic and refreshed. My mind was overcome by something unprecedented, something brand-new to me that I had never explored before. Whenever I finished a part of research and recalled that foreigner’s words, I was ashamed of myself who depreciated a language treasure that was highly valued even by a foreigner. How ridiculous it is of me to recognize such a traditional, historical, and useful language as a rural one! With unstoppable curiosity, I also explored information about other dialects. The result changed my values of language that one language is superior to others because I found every language unique and irreplaceable. Eventually, I formed the concept of language equality in my mind.

When I came back to school from the journey, I apologized to that classmate once mocked at by me, but I still couldn’t shorten the gap between me and the Cantonese-speakers at class until my conversation with a Mongolian classmate.

She was a very timid girl who rarely spoke because she was afraid that we would laugh at her Mandarin with deep Mongolian accent. I mimicked the tune of that foreigner and told her, “Mongolian is a very old language in China. It was once a liaison of your Mongolian ancestors. It is the language that is used in original Mongolian literature and also the symbol of Mongolian culture. You should proud of owing such an excellent language skills. You integrating it into your Mandarin can add to the cultural value of your words.”

The Cantonese-speakers nearby interrupted with surprise, “Wow, our good student is instigating someone to disobey the school rule (of speaking Mandarin)! Did the Sun rise from the west today?”

What also surprised them is that I was not irritated; instead, I apologized humbly, “Sorry, everyone. It was too ignorant of me to appreciate the value of dialects. Dui Mu Ju (“sorry” in Cantonese).”

Subsequently, I shared my experience in Chinatown with them. They were all astonished by the “exportation” of Cantonese to America and that awesome foreigner that told me a lesson. Later on, our topic somehow shifted from condemnation of my disrespect for Cantonese in the past to the introduction of each other’s dialect and the culture behind it. In laughter, my sin of contempting for Cantonese was neglected, and all of us, though coming from different regions of China and speaking Mandarin with different accents, were bonded together by the consensus that dialects are valuable and significant.

If you now ask me whether I can speak Cantonese, I will reply without hesitation, “Yes! I am the native speaker of Cantonese!”

When I travelled to Sichuan, I tried to learned some Sichuanese; when I travelled to Yunnan, I tried to learn some Yunnanese. Learning a dialect enables me to learn about the unique value of a place or an ethnic, something brand-new to me that I couldn’t imagine before learning the dialect.

The answer to the question that whether Mandarin has a higher value than other dialects is obscure because every language, no matter a dialect or an official language is unique with a special history and culture behind it. They served as a carrier for precious literature of our ancestors. Every language, whether being called a dialect or an official language, deserves respect.

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