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My understanding is that there are multiple languages in China, for example, Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin, and they are not mutually intelligible. However, all three use more or less the same writing system. So, I was wondering if Chinese who speak different languages use writing to communicate in everyday situations.

For example, if a Chinese tourist from one province is in a different one, do they write their questions down on a piece of paper when they need help from someone who does not speak their language?

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    This doesn't answer your question: chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/1514/…? – user3306356 Apr 29 at 16:32
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  • @droooze I am not asking about variations in writing. – Tyler Durden Apr 29 at 16:40
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    For example, if a Chinese tourist from one province is in a different one, do they write their questions down on a piece of paper when they need help from someone who does not speak their language? Yes, they write their question down. No, they don't write the question in their own vernacular language, they write in Standard Written Chinese because the Chinese government mandates education in Standard Written Chinese across the country, no matter what the regional language is. – droooze Apr 29 at 16:56
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    The answer is in this post too chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/33498/… All Chinese write in one standard language system. (Standard Written Chinese - SWC) People who speak different dialects in China are expected to communicate with each others using the official dialect Mandarin in speech and the standard written Chinese (SWC) in writing. – Tang Ho Apr 29 at 17:25
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However, all three use more or less the same writing system. So, I was wondering if Chinese who speak different languages use writing to communicate.

I'll start off by quoting a Wikipedia section on Vulgar Latin:

By its nature, Vulgar Latin varied greatly by region and by time period, though several major divisions can be seen. Vulgar Latin dialects began to significantly diverge from Classical Latin by the third century during the classical period of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, throughout the sixth century, the most widely spoken dialects were still similar to and mostly mutually intelligible with Classical Latin. In terms of regional differences for the whole Latin period, "we can only glimpse a tiny amount of divergence with the actual written data. In texts of all kinds, literary, technical, and all others, the written Latin of the first five or six centuries A.D. looks as if it were territorially homogeneous, even in its 'vulgar' register. It is only in the later texts, of the seventh and eighth centuries, that we are able to see in the texts geographical differences that seem to be the precursors of similar differences in the subsequent Romance languages."

If you imagine an alternate universe where speakers of French, Spanish, Italian, etc. never wrote their own languages up until even now, but all wrote in Latin instead, then suddenly Italian culture became dominant in a politically unified Europe, subsequently basing a modern written standard on Italian, this provides a kind of analogy to China of today.

Yes, Chinese languages are traditionally written with the same writing system. However, the de-facto written standard was not in the different languages' vernacular; prior to the May Fourth Movement, written communication was done in Classical Chinese, while afterwards the national standard, called Standard Chinese, became based on a bunch of Mandarin languages.

To be clear, people who speak Hokkien, Cantonese, and Mandarin all write in the national standard as a Chinese lingua franca. Communication is not done by speakers of different languages writing in their own vernaculars such as Written Cantonese, Written Wu (Wikipedia site here), Written Gan (Wikipedia site here), etc, although in principle these vernaculars are highly readable with a minimal amount of training by non-speakers.

  • Does not answer the question – Tyler Durden Apr 29 at 16:41
  • @TylerDurden you asked if Chinese who speak different languages use writing to communicate. The answer is, they use Standard Written Chinese, not their own vernacular, for cross-communication. If it does not answer your question, you might want to rephrase your question. – droooze Apr 29 at 16:42
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    Oh I see...you haven't dissociated spoken language from written language. Chinese people have been writing languages that they don't actually speak for about 2,000 years, and that's still the case today in Hong Kong, where the majority of the population naturally speaks Cantonese but are taught to write in a Mandarin-based language. Until you accept that it's possible for people to write in languages that they don't speak, you won't understand how Chinese works. – droooze Apr 29 at 17:10
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No, of course not, that's what Putonghua is for! As long as you learn some Putonghua, you can talk to most people in China.

Examples:

Not 20Km from here is 高淳。They speak an old Southern Song dynasty dialect. If you only speak Putonghua, you won't understand them. However, they all also speak Putonghua, they learn it in school.

My gf can speak to her grandma, who is from a little village in Hunan, because grandma went to school and can speak Putonghua (though they tend to say H as F, the opposite of 福建). Granddad never learnt Putonghua, so conversation is limited, but he understands Putonghua to a degree.

I know 2 girls from 西藏。 Not sure what language they speak and they have no English, but we can talk in Putonghua.

I've met students from 广州。They tend to have a funny accent in Putonghua sometimes, but so do I as a foreigner!

As to "communicate in writing" I notice many times, if you don't understand a word, people will often write the word with their finger on the palm of their left hand.

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From my answer to this question: Is referring to Mandarin as just "Chinese" problematic?

All Chinese write in one standard language system. (Standard Written Chinese - SWC) People who speak different dialects in China are expected to communicate with each others using the official dialect Mandarin in speech and the standard written Chinese (SWC) in writing

The answer to your question is 'no'. If someone went to school and learned how to write in standard written Chinese, he would also learned how to speak Mandarin, regardless of what his native dialect was.

There is no need to communicate in writing when one Chinese encounter another Chinese, because ALL Chinese are expected to know how to speak one common language (Putonghua/ Mandarin)- and learning this language is mandatory in China.

  • Realistically, many old people still don't know it. I can't say I've experienced them using writing to communicate across dialectical boundaries, though; they just repeat themselves but louder, as old people the world over are wont to do. – Stumpy Joe Pete Apr 30 at 6:23
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    @ Stumpy Joe Pete There is a saying "口在路邊" . As long as most of the population in a region can speak their native dialects and Mandarin, a visitor can easily find someone to translate for him when dealing with older folks who can't speak Mandarin – Tang Ho Apr 30 at 6:59

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