The Difference between Written and Spoken Chinese
Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. Approximately one in six people speak Chinese. But did you know that not all Chinese speakers use exactly the same written Chinese language? For example, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use Traditional Chinese, whereas Simplified Chinese is used in China, Malaysia, and Singapore. This blog will mainly focus on the difference between Traditional Chinese (Taiwan) and Simplified Chinese (China). 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.
As far as communication is concerned, we can communicate with each other without any problems if we are using Mandarin (dialects, such as Shanghainese, Taiwanese, are a different story), but we can always detect different accents, terms and phrases used, style, and handwriting. 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.
Chinese Written Text: Traditional vs. Simplified
In mainland China a simplified writing system is used, whereas in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas regions the traditional script is being used. Starting from the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a growing consensus that the writing system constituted an obstacle to the achievement of a higher literacy rate. The simplified writing system differs in two ways from the traditional writing system: (1) a reduction of the number of strokes per character and (2) the reduction of the number of characters in common use (two different characters are now written with the same character). A large-scale reform was continued after the founding of the PRC. In 1955 1,053 variant characters were eliminated. In 1956, the Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters, known later as the First Scheme, was promulgated by the PRC government. It was composed of 525 simplified characters and 54 simplified basic components of characters. The Second Scheme of Simplified Chinese Characters was promulgated in 1977 but was repealed in 1986 amid general disapproval.
Why are there two writing systems in Chinese?
Cantonese is viewed as part of the cultural identity for its native speakers across large swathes of southeastern China, Hong Kong and Macau. Cantonese and Mandarin share some common vocabulary – however the two varieties are mutually unintelligible because of historical differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexicon that have developed over the centuries. The structure of the sentence, in particular verb placement, often differs between the three varieties.
Another notable difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is also how the spoken word is written; both can be recorded verbatim. However, few Cantonese speakers are really knowledgeable in the full Cantonese written vocabulary. This means that quite frequently a non-verbatim formalised written form is adopted which is more akin to the Mandarin written form, resulting in situations in which Cantonese and Mandarin texts look quite similar, but are pronounced very differently.
Chinese Spoken Language: Mandarin vs. Cantonese
Mandarin is by far the largest of the seven or ten Chinese dialect groups, with 70 per cent of Chinese speakers and a huge area stretching from Yunnan in the southwest to Xinjiang in the northwest and Heilongjiang in the northeast. This is attributed to the greater ease of travel and communication in the North China Plain compared to the more mountainous south, combined with the relatively recent spread of Mandarin to frontier areas. Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (previously Canton in English). Most foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London and San Francisco, also speak Cantonese thanks to emigration from Guangdong.
Where Are Mandarin and Cantonese Spoken?
Mandarin is the official state language of China and is the lingua franca of the country. In much of the country, it is the primary spoken language, including Beijing and Shanghai, although many provinces still retain their own local dialect. Mandarin is also the main dialect in Taiwan and Singapore. Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and the wider Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (previously Canton in English). Most foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London and San Francisco, also speak Cantonese because historically Chinese immigrants hailed from Guangdong.
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.)
Do All Chinese People Speak Mandarin?
No -- while many Hong Kongers are now learning Mandarin as a second language, they will, for the most part, not speak the language. The same is true of Macau. Guangdong province has seen an influx of Mandarin speakers and many people there now speak Mandarin. Many other regions in China will also speak their regional language natively and knowledge of Mandarin may be patchy. This is especially true in Tibet, northern regions near Mongolia and Korea and Xinjiang. The benefit of Mandarin is that while not everybody speaks it, there will usually be somebody nearby who does. That means that wherever you are there you should be able to find someone to help with directions, timetables or whatever crucial information you need.