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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?

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    Italians and Spaniards do the same thing, each speaking their own language. What's unrealistic about it? – user3306356 Sep 27 '15 at 13:12
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    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. – Drunken Master Sep 27 '15 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. – user3109672 Oct 22 '15 at 15:46
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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 Oct 1 '15 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 Oct 2 '15 at 1:00
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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 Sep 27 '15 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 Sep 27 '15 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 Sep 27 '15 at 16:23

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