Isn’t Cantonese “Chinese” too?

In Monologue/Dialogue on January 30, 2009 at 8:37 am

What is up with UCLA’s Chinese placement test?  Currently students may only take the placement test in the Mandarin dialect, the standard language of mainland China and Taiwan.

Of course, Mandarin is a very useful dialect to know, since it is the most widely spoken language in the world today.  However, Cantonese is a major Chinese dialect and is spoken in southeastern China and overseas Chinese communities around the globe.

It strikes me as odd that a Cantonese speaker who is literate in Chinese but does not speak Mandarin would need to take two courses (Mandarin for Cantonese Speakers) in order to fulfill the language requirement using “Chinese.”

Although Cantonese is just one out of many languages and dialects in the world, since UCLA has quite a few Cantonese-speaking students, I feel that it deserves to be treated as a “language” in this context.

–posted by Debbie Chong

  1. I agree with you. Cantonese should be treated as a “language”. And the reason is that Cantonese IS a separate language from Mandarin.

    Many people refer to Mandarin and Cantonese, and several other languages of China, as “dialects” of Chinese. This is a misnomer. “Dialect” is a relative term. Two languages that are similar enough to be mutually intelligible are considered dialects relative to each other. Cantonese and Mandarin, however, are not mutually intelligible. Although they share a common origin and similar grammatical structure, they have drifted apart to the extent that they can no longer be considered to be variations of a single language, and are therefore separate languages, not dialects.

    The relationship between Mandarin and Cantonese is analogous to that between Portuguese and Spanish. Although Portuguese and Spanish are related languages, they are not mutually intelligible, and therefore are separate languages and not dialects.

    American English and Australian English are an example of two languages that are dialects relative to each other.

    • Thanks for your comment! You bring up a number of good points. As I understand it, the reason Mandarin and Cantonese are considered dialects of Chinese is because they share the same formal writing system. But of course, the writing system is not uniform these days either, now that we have simplified and traditional characters. –Debbie

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