I'm hoping to be able to provide better service to some Chinese customers I occasionally see at my night job (hardware store) who have difficulty describing what they're looking for in English. I can't be sure what variety they speak (and if they speak a regional dialect of Mandarin, I would still be up a creek), and anecdotally, I gather that some Chinese immigrants in the US do not speak Mandarin fluently.

From what I understand, one of the difficulties of studying non-Mandarin languages such as Yue, Wu, or Min Nan is the fact that speakers of those varieties, from having to read Mandarin in everyday life, simply read and write Mandarin while speaking their own dialect.

Is this the common experience among Chinese immigrants? If so, I think I could focus particularly on reading and writing, which I'm already better at than speaking and listening, and have more of a guarantee of communicating effectively.

  • It seems your confusion has nothing to do with society literature level.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 15:05
  • 1
    you only need study Mandrin, when you speak Mandarin, your customer will switch to speak Mandrin too. Most Chinese can speak Mandarin, but when all audiences are his neighbours, he speak his dialect only, Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 1:02
  • Thank you, @DanielYeung! I'm sure, then, that a young Chinese immigrant (i.e., educated in the PRC) would understand and be willing to communicate in Mandarin with me, whatever he may speak at home. Now the question becomes, would he rather read/write in Mandarin than speak in English, since I'm still a bit more fluent in writing than speech...
    – JAF
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:51
  • @JAF well, you could write first or type in your phone. I have a colleague, who traveled in China, bargaining with a Taxi driver by typing the numbers in the calculator on his phone. He don't know any Chinese words. :)
    – dan
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 1:57

2 Answers 2


As I know, everybody within the nation will be able to understand Mandarin, though some speak their own regional dialects. Very few people (typically very old people from southern area) have the hard time to speak mandarin (not fluent or even unable to speak), but they are still able to understand Mandarin you speak without any problems. I just met less than 10 people of this kind over 30 years, so just very few of them.

I speak Mandarin only and am having hard time to understand dialects from other regions: Cantonese, Min Nan, Shanghainese,etc. I will ask people to switch to Mandarin whenever they speak other dialects. It's not a problem.


For any non-mandarin speaker that doesn't understand the Mandarin culture, this is a common confusion.

This is the unique characteristic of Mandarin language: in Chinese culture, people tend to communicate through the Chinese writing, instead of speaking. The "Pu-tong-Hua 普通话"(China) or "华语“(Taiwan)is indeed a modern language that evolves from Beijing dialect with a history of no more than 200 years. While the official speech used by bureaucrats is called "官话”. But intellectuals are still communicating with each other using the Glyph.

Because China enters imperialism era way ahead of Europe (at least 1000 years), there is little need for "nationalism", i.e. to promote a single language nationwide. Nevertheless, the nationalism process is on the way. It is no different than many countries that teach "national language" together with localized dialect. This takes time.

In fact, many countries still maintain localized dialect. However, phonetic language cannot retain the same literacy level of Chinese glyph, thus localized dialects are still confusing for other languages. Nevertheless, localized regional terms still appear in various Chinese dialects that enter the language.

(update) There is a book call 说文解字(shuo wen jie zhi) (written around year 100-121), which selects a number of words that user by various region.

The online zdic 汉典 contains reference to some localized dialect, under the section 音韵方言

  • May you give some interesting localized terms that stem from a certain dialect? =)
    – Abe Shudug
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 23:16
  • "This is the unique characteristic of Mandarin language: in Chinese culture, people tend to communicate through the Chinese writing, instead of speaking." I don't think this statement is true, along with some other statements in this answer.
    – dan
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 7:23
  • @dan There is a special terms that only apply to Mandarin, it is call 笔谈. Communication through writing.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 10:01
  • @mootmoot, I'd never gone into 笔谈, and neither did people around. After a Baidu search, "定义:笔谈是指 汉字文化圈地域内不同语言知识分子相互交流的方法之一.主要使用汉字以及 文言文(汉文)的交流方式.这种方法的交流在近代以前尤为普遍,日本 江户时代的儒学者常和朝鲜通信使用汉字笔谈的方式来争论儒学问题,来自安南( 越南)的使节与朝鲜使节互赠 汉诗。" It says some Japanese and Korean discussed the Confucianism through writing "笔谈". I guess it's because both can not speak Chinese, but somehow they know the ancient Chinese Characters.
    – dan
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 13:10
  • @dan Hong Kong Cantonese. And movie subtitle. ;-)
    – mootmoot
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 13:44

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