English and Mandarin juxtaposed

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Yesterday, a flood of seemingly sensational headlines concerning language use in China crossed my transom.  Here are a few of them, with embedded links to the articles:

On the first story, we've encountered accusations of increased attention to English being the cause of the deterioration of Chinese language skills many times before, e.g., "English Banned in Chinese Writing," "Creeping Romanization in Chinese," "English in China #2."

This anxious refrain recurs frequently enough that one wonders whether there really is a language "crisis" in China (as various concerned authorities claim) and whether the strong emphasis on English in education, commerce, and communication really is the cause.  The fact that the charge against English this time comes from a national think tank (the Intelligence Research Academy) founded by the prestigious and powerful Chinese Academy of Science, and specifically from a deputy of the CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) who heads it, means that it carries a considerable amount of political weight, but that does not necessarily mean that the charge is linguistically true.

As for the revelation that hundreds of millions of people in China do not speak Mandarin, I'm not the least bit surprised.  On the other hand, we may note that:

1. Merely with the statistics that have been provided, one can put all sorts of spins on the situation.  One could, for example, just as well say that 70% / 900,000,000 Chinese DO speak Mandarin (though I seriously doubt that [see below]).

2. The statistics themselves are of a rather dubious and imprecise nature.  For example, what does it mean that "a large number" do not speak Mandarin well?  For other figures from 2004 and 2007, all very suspicious, see here.

The main problem with all such sweeping assertions about how many people speak or do not speak Mandarin is that Mandarin is not a monolithic entity.  I would consider it a branch of the Sinitic language family (or group, if you think Sinitic is part of some other family) with many more or less mutually unintelligible varieties.

I've told this story many times before, but it bears repeating.  My wife, Li-ching Chang, was born in Changyi, Shandong (not far from Qingdao).  Both her parents spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shandong accent.  When Li-ching was still a baby, they fled with her to Sichuan, far away to the southwest.  As an adult, Li-ching was a superb teacher of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but up to the age of 11, when she again fled with her parents to Taiwan, she had grown up in Sichuan and spoke Mandarin à la Chengdu city (lots of tonal and lexical differences from MSM).  In July, 1987, Li-ching and I went back to visit her old haunts in Chengdu, and she had no problem so long as she was in the city, because she would just shift gears from MSM to Chengdu-style Mandarin, with which she was very comfortable, having kept up contacts with many people from the city even after she had moved to Taiwan (many of them fled from Sichuan to Taiwan at the same time her family did) and then came to America.  However, once we went outside Chengdu, Li-ching's ability to understand local speech diminished rapidly.  When we went to villages around Leshan (140 miles away) and Emeishan (89 miles distant), she couldn't comprehend a word of what the indigenes were saying.  In fact, Li-ching thought that they were "minority" people like the Yi and was astonished to find out that they were Han (i.e., Sinitic speakers).

The late Jerry Norman, who is considered by many to be one of the best Chinese linguists of the second half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, once told me privately that he thought that there were at least 300 different varieties of Mandarin that were more or less mutually unintelligible, and that they were essentially different languages, not dialects.  But Jerry, who did not relish controversy and confrontation, said that he would never make such a statement in public or in print.  When people dare to raise these issues with regard to the various varieties of Chinese / Sinitic, it can lead to volatile reactions.  Fortunately, here on Language Log, most commenters are civilized and reasonable, so we can have discussions of the sort that have been going on for the last couple of weeks, here and here.


  1. J. Xiao said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    Bilingualism is often blamed for deterioration of language skill, but how many of that is just because the use of code-mixing/code-switching/assimilated lexical items goes against prescription (in essence an attitude/value matter), and how many is about a quantifiable/measurable/verifiable decrease in the effectiveness of communication?

  2. Onymous said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

    Just last month I met a Chinese chemist who holds a European doctorate and speaks French, German, and English, and who expresses remarkably cosmopolitan views on various subjects, but was passionately indignant that Mandarin and Cantonese are often named as different "languages" in US course catalogues. She believes that Chinese dialects, properly called, differ only in pronunciation and all have the same grammar. Wishing to remain on friendly terms,I mildly suggested that many southern Mandarin speakers say things like "wo you chi", instead of "wo chi le", under influence of the distinctive grammarian a regional dialect like Minnan. She insisted that this is insignificant. I inferred that she implicily considered me a "splittist", so 顧左右而言它。

  3. Onymous said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    I meant "distinctive grammar of a regional…", mistakenly edited by my iPhone.

  4. tsts said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 12:03 am

    I have also recently heard from Chinese colleagues that they felt English was emphasized too much. These were people who themselves speak excellent English, and they did not argue that somehow learning a second language diminishes skills in the first language. Their main worry was that English was taking up too much class time, and that smart students with otherwise good grades who had deficiencies in English were unnecessarily held back.

    I have not particular opinion on this, but to keep some perspective it might be useful to compare to the situation in the US, where you can enter even the (so-called) top universities without knowing much of any foreign language. And then imagine the nativist outcry you would get if one of these universities were to suggest that maybe knowledge of a foreign language should be a major criterium for admission. Compared to that, some think tank in China suggesting that maybe there should be a little less foreign language instruction is really nothing.

  5. Jason said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 12:36 am


    The difference with the United States is, all the important science and engineering articles aren't written in Chinese! (Forget culture, — it's the access to technological know-how that's motivating policymakers in non-English speaking countries.)

    Much in the same way that the US reaps an advantage from the seignorage of having its currency also be the reserve currency of much of the world, it's precisely the advantages of English-speaking countries' "linguistic seigniorage" that is at issue in non-English speaking countries at the moment.

  6. Brian R said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    I'm sure the seeds to the 'language crisis' were sown long ago. A local friend of mine here in Taiwan points out that he learned to speak Taiwanese in exactly the place he wasn't supposed to. When he was a child the language of instruction was explicitly to be Mandarin only (my friend's first language), but what's a teacher to do when she has to teach a classroom full of countryside children who only speak Taiwanese? I'm sure back then the ROC language policy was to give schools likely to serve Mandarin speakers and those likely to serve Taiwanese (or Hakka) speakers the exact same curriculum making no allowance for time needed to learn Mandarin, meaning that teachers often taught in the local 'langulect'. I'm sure a very similar situation maintains in the PRC, or did until recently.

    I would be VERY surprised if those Chinese students who have managed attain any mastery of English aren't also far more likely than the national average to be able to speak a prestige version of Mandarin. Maybe someone should run a correlation that the CPPCC can misinterpret resulting in a redoubling of effort to teach English.

  7. julie lee said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    Whenever I venture the opinion to my educated Chinese friends that Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese are not just dialects but languages, I have the feeling I get classified as either a traitor or a barbarian. I can sense a chill in the air and a tightness in the throat. A mitigating factor is that I am an "overseas Chinese", one who grew up abroad, so basically ignorant and forgivable. My dad even once said to me when we disagreed on something: "You're just a barbarian," meaning non-Chinese. (Like Mohammedans saying, "You're just an infidel.") It's ok for foreigners to think Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc. are languages–I mean, they're basically barbarians, what can you expect. Foreigners can get away with a lot of things, such as sympathize with intransigent Tibetans and Uighurs But not Chinese. In China, they'd be clapped in jail, or heaven forbid, "disappeared" (passive verb, meaning made to disappear).

  8. julie lee said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 10:56 am

    p.s. My comments were meant to respond to
    @Onymous's interesting comments.

  9. Alan said,

    September 7, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    The commonality that ties all the dialects/languages of China into one is the written language (for the most part, I know there are Cantonese words that cannot be written in standard Mandarin). This is a huge differences from European languages, and a huge advantage for China's integration. On the other hand, people can apply whatever sound they want to a Chinese character, thus the plethora of mutually unintelligible Chinese "dialects/languages". While written Chinese is a unifying force, the spoken language is a centrifugal force that the government probably rightly should be concerned about.

    And both Julie is right (there are huge spoken differences in sound and grammar) and mainland Chinese are right (they all essentially use the same characters). Also, I think 300 Mandarin dialects is probably an understatement. But then, defining what is a dialect is as politically challenging as defining a language.

    Of course, you've probably heard the adage that "a language is a dialect supported by an army." :-)

  10. Michael Newsham said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 6:56 am

    On the destructiveness of English, the Ministry of Education n Taiwan has just announced the banning of teaching of English in cram schools to children under six (which they had previously done if using foreign teachers). An exception was made if the primary method of teaching was using physical activity, but they soecifically banned learning to write the alphabet.

  11. julie lee said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    We get back to the point made, I believe, in a previous Language Log post on Cantonese. Your point seems to be that Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese (and other Chinese topolects that are mutually unintelligible) are only dialects because they share, most importantly, a script with Mandarin and all the other Han Chinese topolects. Would Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc. be languages if they had their own scripts, like Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, etc.? I understand scripts are being (or have been recently) developed for Cantonese and Taiwanese because there are so many words in those topolects that cannot be conveyed by the present Chinese script. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are much closer to one another than Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese and Mandarin to one another and so are Spanish and Italian to each other. Without their own scripts, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, etc. cannot have their own genuine written literature, and that would be a pity.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 11:48 am


    If you're still citing "a language is a dialect supported by an army", you have not been reading recent Language Log posts concerning dialects and languages, since we've cited and discussed that trite adage ad nauseam.

    There are scores (maybe even hundreds if you count all of the languages for which missionaries have created the first written texts) of languages in the world that use the Roman alphabet for their script, but they are certainly not united by the Roman alphabet, Many different languages are also written with the Arabic script, Cyrillic script, etc., and even the Chinese script.


    But sharing a script does not mean that the languages are the same or that they are somehow part of a "commonality". Most European languages share the same alphabet, but the countries that speak them are not politically united and nobody would say that they are "dialects" instead of languages because they use the same script.

    What determines whether two linguistic entities are different languages or dialects of a language are grammar, syntax, morphology, lexicon, and so forth, not whether they happen to be written with the same script. Don't forget that languages often switch their script abruptly within a short period of time, as Uyghur did during the 20th century, but they are still the same language despite the change of script.

  13. Wentao said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

    A question that has puzzled me for a while: Is it possible to devise a system in which the difference between languages/dialects is indicated by a set of parameters? If not, can we at least reasonably measure how different a language is to another? Can we say "the difference between A and B is greater than that between C and D"?

    Personally I feel that among Sinitic languages, Jin, Xiang and Gan are closer to Mandarin compared to Wu, Yue, Hakka and Min. This feeling is not based on mutual intelligibility; speaking for myself, I can understand virtually zero of any of them.

  14. Bruce Humes said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    I almost always enjoy whatever discussion brings me here, and this one too is interesting. I'm a fluent speaker of Mandarin and a mediocre speaker of HK Cantonese, but I'm not a trained linguist. Pls bear this in mind!

    Two things occur to me when these topics are discussed.

    One is that it seems relatively few of those who comment know more than one form of spoken Chinese. In my opinion, it's an exaggeration to argue that Cantonese and Mandarin have markedly different grammar; yes, as Onymous notes, there are differences (as in "you eat first" in Cantonese vs. "you first eat" in Mandarin). But in my experience, they aren't profound enough to make communication truly difficult. Huge differences in pronunciation and, to a lesser extent, the use of "antiquated" vocabulary in Cantonese are the bigger obstacles to mutual comprehension.

    The second thing that strikes me is that I have personally found that importance of the urban-rural gap is underestimated, while many people focus too much on how dialect supposedly interferes with communication in Mandarin.

    To put it simply: I don't believe that "hundreds of millions" of Chinese "can't" speak Mandarin. But I have noticed during my three decades in China, during which I conducted management training using Mandarin to over 8,000 export professionals in 20 or so mid-to-large cities, that many city residents find it difficult to comprehend their country cousins. So much so that they tend to classify them as "unable" to speak Mandarin.

    I also have trouble understanding many who live in the countryside, but I have found that 1) Strictly speaking, they may be speaking passable Mandarin, vocabulary- and grammar-wise, but it's just their accents that are not at all "standard"; and 2) Because they express their thoughts rather differently than a typical city-dweller, it can be difficult to follow their "logic."

  15. Jerimiah said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    To play devil's advocate for a moment, the article and the deputy's remarks in general seem to be less focused on English skills being the cause of deterioration of Chinese language skills, and more on a proportional imbalance between Chinese and English language studies being the cause. It might be a fine distinction, but it is an important one. The main point of his comments is that there is an overemphasis placed on foreign language studies, which leads to several problems (barring science majors from universities, less focus on certain majors, etc.), only one of which is deterioration of Chinese skills. And he has a point. Can you imagine if students in the US couldn't attend a university to major in microbiology because they didn't do well on their entrance Spanish exam?

    Also, to be fair, if you follow the link in the article to the survey that he mentions, it appears to be a multiple choice survey (or the percentages are horribly off), and while 52% of those surveyed believe that the Chinese crisis is due to overemphasis on foreign languages, 73% believe that it is due to the "internet age" and people "messing around" with language." That reason is agreed upon far more by those surveyed, but for some reason, English took the blame in the article, while internet slang did not. Overemphasis on foreign language is just one factor of many.

    Not trying to be a 五毛 here, just trying to say that the whole "English language destroying Mandarin" issue can sometimes get hyped up by English speakers, when the Chinese reports aren't actually trying to sensationalize it.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 9, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    I think the way the pieces fit together is that if you have a high percentage of students whose native language/topolect is not MSM, and you're trying to make essentially all of them fluent (to whatever degree) in both MSM *and* English before high school graduation, that requires a bigger chunk of resources and instructional time (necessarily taking away from math or science or geography or whatever) than if you're just trying to teach them a single second language. Non-anglophone countries that are currently notable for the high average English proficiency of their typical K-12 graduate (the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for example), are probably among other things countries where a pretty high percentage of students natively speak the official national language as their L1 before they start school. (Although Japan would fit that pattern a lot better than the PRC, and the actual quality of English proficiency of median Japanese high school graduates is often said to be pretty poor considering the amount of time devoted to English instruction.) The big question (where politics and pedagogy will necessarily get mixed up) is what will give way in favor of what, if it's just not possible to teach everything people think ought to be taught to the level of proficiency they think it ought to be taught to.

    Good grades in some foreign language (without getting into what sort of proficiency is actually implied by 3 or 4 years of A-'s in US high school French) are usually looked upon favorably by elite/competitive US colleges as a signal or proxy for something or other, even if the relevance of the language to the intended collegiate major is uncertain. I'd be interested to know if e.g. CalTech or MIT actually have any material number of incoming freshmen who got away with not bothering with any foreign language in high school because it wasn't immediately relevant to their intended field of study.

  17. dw said,

    September 10, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    I have not particular opinion on this, but to keep some perspective it might be useful to compare to the situation in the US, where you can enter even the (so-called) top universities without knowing much of any foreign language. And then imagine the nativist outcry you would get if one of these universities were to suggest that maybe knowledge of a foreign language should be a major criterium for admission.

    The situation in the UK used to be similar to this. I know that, when my father was applying for admission as an undergratuate, in the early 1960s, he was unable to even consider the most prestigious institutions (Oxford, Cambridge, and the like) because he lacked any foreign language. Go back further, and Latin was considered essential for pretty much anything.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    "Rescuing Mandarin doesn't have to scapegoat English — experts say"


  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 11, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

    "Call to reduce English lessons to 'save' Chinese"

    South China Morning Post- September 12, 2013


    A former senior education official has triggered heated debate after he publicly denounced the teaching of English to young children and called …

  20. Ray Dillinger said,

    September 12, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    This article has kicked off rampant speculation among some of my correspondents that the Chinese Government is upset because English is a more universal language within China than Mandarin, and wants to de-emphasize English as part of their program to unify/standardize all China into speaking the same "dialect."

    I can't entirely rule that out. At the same time, I don't really support it, because even if China drastically reduces its emphasis on English, they will still have a greater focus on English than any western nation places on mastery of any particular non-native language. In other words, they're debating only how hard to push their kids to learn English, and not, as we tend to, whether we push our kids to learn any other languages at all.

    From a pragmatic point of view, English is currently the main language of international scholarship. Every important paper in every field, if not initially published in English, is usually available in English within a year of its first publication. If you're a university student anywhere, that is a compelling reason to spend language-learning efforts on English rather than any other language you may not already speak. If China intends to de-emphasize English in primary and secondary education, they're going to have to get serious about translating all works of scholarship rapidly into Chinese (by which they mean Mandarin). Having done so, most of their kids will still have to work to learn (that particular style of) Mandarin.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    "Mind your language"

    Why 400 million Chinese can’t speak Mandarin

  22. Anongminous said,

    September 16, 2013 @ 11:18 am

    Where are all the people who can't speak "Mandarin" (standard Chinese)? I can't find them. I talk to people all over China, old people in rural areas, minorities, people in Cantonese/Wu etc areas. They all speak standard Chinese.

    People from Beijing or government agencies tell you that 400 million or 30% of the population can't speak/understand standard Chinese because people won't talk to them in standard Chinese. Whenever I speak to anyone, they speak standard Chinese, of better or worse, back to me. That's because 1. I don't act superior or threatening to them 2. People don't want to lose face for themselves and the whole country by admitting that they can't speak Chinese to a non Chinese person?

    Anyone who can't understand standard Chinese hasn't been to school, doesn't watch TV and has never talked to anyone from a different province.

    PS. Your wife must have been having a bad time in Leshan/Emei. I get by around the whole of Sichuan and beyond with Chengduhua.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

    @ Anongminous

    "Your wife must have been having a bad time in Leshan/Emei."

    She sure was!

    I guess a lot depends upon what sort of people you talk to, whether people from remote villages or those from towns.

    And how did you learn your Chengduhua? Are you a native of that city?

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