Language versus Dialect

The next post I have coming up (it will be posted tomorrow) is a simple introduction to Mandarin. Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese. I think I should clarify the difference between a language and a dialect first, as many people get them confused. 

There isn’t a super clear distinction between the two, which makes them difficult to define. A dialect is basically variations of vocabulary and grammar within a language. For example, within English there is American English, British English, African American Vernacular English, etc. As you travel across the United States, you will notice small changes in the linguistic characteristics of the places you visit. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are no longer able to understand what the people there are saying. This would mean you are speaking dialects within the same language. 

The situation with English dialects is not the same for Chinese dialects. Among the dialects in China, apart from sharing a writing system and a country, most of them have few similarities. For example, in Mandarin, the pronunciation for “I love you” is wo ai ni. In the Cantonese dialect, they say ngoh oi lei. People who speak Mandarin would not understand people who speak Cantonese. However, the people speaking both dialects would write “我爱你”. This is why they are considered dialects of Chinese, and not their own language. 

Also, an accent is different from a dialect. An accent is only a variation in pronunciation. A dialect relates to vocabulary and grammar as well as pronunciation. 

Honestly, pretty much anything relating to linguistics is complicated with hard to answer questions. For example, when does a dialect become its own language? How do dialects even form in the first place? So, don’t give yourself a headache by trying to understand this. You only need to know that when I am talking about Chinese, I am referring to reading and writing, and when I am talking about Mandarin, I am referring to speaking and a specific dialect of Chinese. 


  1. Gamer, R. E., & Toops, S. W. (Eds.). (2017). Understanding Contemporary China: Fifth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
  2. Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. (D. Crystal, Ed.). England: Penguin Group.

Overview of the Written Chinese Language:

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