For example, in the movie Ip Man, the "northerner" martial arts fighter who comes to Foshan to challenge the local martial arts fighters always talks in Mandarin, while everybody he talks to (the local citizens, fighters, Ip Man himself, factory workers, etc.) always speak to him in Cantonese. This is repeated throughout the movie. The conversations are carried on fine with both sides seeming to understand the other perfectly, and both sides assuming that the other side understands them, even though Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. Neither side tries to change to the other side's language, and neither side is annoyed that the other side continues to speak the other language. This seems really odd to me.

Is this realistic?

  • 1
    Italians and Spaniards do the same thing, each speaking their own language. What's unrealistic about it?
    – Mou某
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 13:12
  • 2
    Yes, if they both have at least passive knowledge of the other language. In that case communication is not restricted to Chinese dialects or related languages, but can happen between any two languages. Of course, related languages that are mutually intelligible pose a special case, but I think Mandarin and Cantonese are beyond that limit, with no former experience with Yue dialects, a Mandarin speaker is unlikely to take part in a conversiation in which the other person speaks Cantonese. On the other hand, Cantonese speakers are probably better exposed to Mandarin, so they might have a gist.
    – imrek
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 17:19
  • It's a matter of speaking slowly as if to a toddler and strictly sticking to higher-register, generic Chinese words, much like how a Spaniard might talk to an Italian or how a German might talk to a Netherlander. The way they do in films like Ip Man? No way.
    – Einheri
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 15:46

2 Answers 2


People can carry on a conversation speaking whatever language they are comfortable with, if they can understand each other's language. This happens ALL the time in immigrant families all over the world. A typical situation is: Parents move from country A to country B, and are native speakers of A but have a good understanding of B. Their children, growing up in country B, acquire B with native fluency and understand A as their home language. In these families, parents and children carry on conversations in two different languages pretty much all the time. I don't see anything unrealistic about it.

  • But parents and children know each other. The people in the movie are complete strangers who have no knowledge of what the other person understands.
    – user102008
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 16:51
  • I don't see any difference. If it can be done, it can be done. It only takes a couple of sentences for strangers to find out if they can understand each other.
    – monalisa
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 1:00

To a certain degree. In old times there is no one official dialect that is required by the government. So the more sophisticated people generally have aquire the ability to understand more than one dialect.

  • But I assume that parties to a conversation would switch to a common dialect? Like today if there is a group of people including Cantonese-speaking and Mandarin-speaking people, they generally speak in Mandarin.
    – user102008
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 9:16
  • @user102008 You are assuming that the Cantonese-speakers can speak Mandarin and the Mandarin-speakers do not speak Cantonese. I wouldn't necessarily assume that. If Cantonese is what the group can converse in comfortably, they would converse in Cantonese. If it's Mandarin, then Mandarin. Or, they can each speak their own. Please refer to my answer.
    – monalisa
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 15:01
  • @user102008 but the premise is that there is no one common dialect that they can switch to for these people like in the movie?
    – Siyi Deng
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 16:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.