Academics / Community / The Nation and the World

Mandarin and Cantonese at Dana Hall

The Dana Hall Upper School has approximately 40 international students who are ethnically Chinese. Most of these students speak Mandarin, which is the dominant dialect in China. Only about four international students are Cantonese speakers, but they can also speak or at least understand Mandarin, since it is Mandarin is the official language of China. Most of the Mandarin students do not understand or speak Cantonese, because even though Cantonese is one of the main dialects, people are not forced to learn it.

Most non-Chinese people do not understand the complexity of the Chinese dialects. In fact, China has seven main dialects, such as Yue, Wu, Hakka and Min, and has over 200 dialects in total. Each dialect is spoken in a different area of China, and they do not directly relate to one another.

Cantonese and Mandarin are different dialects that each have their own characteristics and sounds. According to Omniglot, there are 971 million Mandarin native speakers and over over 70 million Cantonese speakers. Even though the spoken languages are mutually unintelligible, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can understand each other through writing.

Mandarin is the main language throughout China, Taiwan, and Singapore. It uses four tones. Mandarin can be divided into Northern, Southern and South-Western dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible. Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world by native speakers. Mandarin speakers in China use a simplified Chinese script, while Mandarin speakers in Taiwan use traditional Chinese script. 

Cantonese is the main dialect in southeastern China: Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macau. Cantonese utilizes nine tones, and there are two standard ways of written and spoken Cantonese: a formal version and a colloquial version. The formal version is different from spoken Cantonese, but the phrasing is similar to Mandarin and can be easily understood by Mandarin speakers. The colloquial version is much closer to spoken Cantonese and is incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. In Hong Kong, speakers commonly use colloquial Cantonese and write with extra Cantonese characters mixed with standard Chinese characters.

People who do not have a deep understanding of either Mandarin and Cantonese have difficulty differentiating Mandarin and Cantonese because they do not understand the different tones and accent of each of the dialect. As a foreigner who has had experience hearing Cantonese and Mandarin, East Asian Studies teacher Mr. Karl Neumann feels that Cantonese sounds more dynamic and that more energy is put into it; Mandarin is more smooth and melodic. Tori Eysie ’22, who studies Mandarin at Dana Hall, said that she could probably tell by the tones whether or not the person is speaking in Cantonese or Mandarin.

Dana Hall has no official statistics about the proportion of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers at school. The application form for Dana Hall includes an optional question: “What language is spoken at home?” Most Chinese international students write “Chinese,” which probably means Mandarin because it is the most common dialect.

Ms. Jasmine Xiang, Mandarin teacher in Dana Hall, explained that the reason Dana Hall teaches Mandarin but not Cantonese is that “international relationships and Chinese politics and economy are all based on Mandarin.” Moreover, she commented that more students are taking her Mandarin course each year. When she first came there were only 14 Mandarin students, but now there are 25. Ms. Xiang said that there was a period of time when China strongly promoted Mandarin for the entire nation. Dialects such as Shanghainese or Cantonese have therefore been slowly endangered because people who maintain these dialects are the older generation.

Cantonese is the second-most spoken Chinese dialect not only at Dana Hall but also in Chinatowns in the United States, including in Boston. Mandarin is the most common dialect in China, so most foreigners associate Mandarin with Chinese. Howoever, most people in American Chinatowns also speak Cantonese due to the history of Hong Kongers immigrating to the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute, one in ten Chinese immigrants was a Hong Konger in 2015.

Cantonese is believed to have originated after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE, according to the South China Morning Post. Mandarin was created much later in the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century, according to Qiu Gui Su from ThoughtCo. Mandarin was created as a common language to facilitate national communication and to combat widespread illiteracy, which is one of the reasons why it is the most common dialect. It was also used in the 19th century by ministers in court and the upper classes, especially in Beijing. After the Xinhai Revolution, a revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty (the Qing dynasty) and established the Republic of China, the founding fathers of the new republic held an election in 1912 to determine the official language for the new China. According to legend, Mandarin beat out Cantonese by one vote and became the official language of China.

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