Visiting Asia? Know the Different Dialects for Seamless Communication

Globe East and Southeast Asia

If a trip to Asia is in your future, whether for business or pleasure, it helps to know the language, of course. But you may not realize there are several different dialects and forms of Chinese spoken all throughout the continent. Each one has its differences and nuances, so it’s time to brush up on who speaks what and where.

Standard Chinese also known as Putonghua (普通话) or Mandarin are the two main languages spoken in China. In addition, according to Nations Online, you can expect to find:

  • Wu 吴语: spoken in Shanghai and in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces
  • Yue 粤: Cantonese, official language of Hong Kong and Macau
  • Beijing: Mandarin
  • Uyghur (Xinjiang)
  • English (Hong Kong)
  • Portuguese (Macau)
  • Tibetan (Tibet)
  • Mongolian (Inner Mongolia)
  • Others: Min, Hakka (Kejia), Gan and Xiang
  • Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, English
  • Singapore: Malay, Chinese (Mandarin), Tamil, English
  • Taiwan: Mandarin
  • Vietnam: Vietnamese, French, English, Khmer, Chinese

Did you know that Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken native language in the world? According to, this are nearly a billion within China alone and 1.2 billion worldwide—a few hundred million people more than Spanish and English which happen to be the next most widespread languages. But even within Mandarin, there are many dialects under the umbrella language group of Chinese, originating from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Mandarin Chinese, also known as the “common speech,”  is referred to as 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà). It’s hard to believe it’s only been the official language of China since the 1930s as part of the establishment of the country’s standard dialect.
Within Chinese, there are between seven and 10 main language groups, of which Mandarin is the biggest, followed by Wu, Min, and Yue. Each of those has a variety of sub-dialects, so you can see where this would get confusing. Take Wu, for example, which includes the dialects of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou.

The difference in dialects in China and throughout Asia is greater than in America. Here, we can converse easily with others in various dialects, such as American English, British English, Australian English, and Irish English. For the most part, aside from accents and local variances, we can largely understand and converse with others from all dialects. It’s not this way in China and Asia. In fact, many dialects are so different that communication is near impossible. Take Cantonese and Mandarin, for example. Both are Chinese languages but those who speak them can’t readily communicate with each other. On top of that, there are regional differences and accents within each dialect that make it even harder to comprehend.

Likewise, Shanghainese, with its smooth flow, is vastly different from Mandarin because of all the different consonant sounds between the two.

The many hundreds of Chinese dialects in existence should classify them as totally different languages, yet they remain classified as dialects. So even though you know Mandarin Chinese, be prepared for a steep learning curve when visiting countries within Asia. The best way, then, to learn the various dialects is through immersion. BRIC Language Systems has an innovative way to learn the local language online through exposure to those who actually live there.