A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear

There are many forms of Chinese, and many of them are not mutually intelligible. For many years (basically until I started studying Mandarin) I wasn’t good at distinguishing the sounds of the various forms of Chinese. It was only through exposure that I learned how to identify forms of Chinese just by hearing it, and I’m still far from perfect. In particular, because I’ve had very little exposure to Shanghainese, I’m still not good at identifying it by sound alone.

Why do I think it is good to be able to distinguish these languages? Because it is one thing to read something like ‘Hakka culture is primarily found in China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia’ or ‘Cantonese is the language of the Punti people‘, and another thing to be able to recognize the languages. Though merely being able to recognize the languages doesn’t make one an expert, I think it is enough to imprint on the mind that these cultures/peoples/languages exist in a way that just reading/hearing the statement ‘these cultures/peoples/languages exist’ cannot.

(Personally, I am embarrassed that, in spite of growing up in a neighborhood with plenty of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers, I learned how to distinguish Cantonese and Mandarin at a much later age than when I learned to distinguish French/Spanish/Italian).

This blog post is a guide to learning what these five Sinitic languages sound like. This blog post is not about trying to understand these languages (which is why I ignore tones).

To start, this helpful video teaches common phrases in each of these five languages. In that video, it’s obvious that these languages are related, yet not mutually intelligible. (That video also refers to Mandarin as “guān​huà​“, which is interesting).

It helps to know a few common words, such as pronouns. For example, the first person singular pronouns (I/me/my) are thus:

Mandarin: wo (it rhymes with ‘awe’)
Cantonese: ngo (it also rhymes with ‘awe’)
Hokkien: goa (it sounds like ‘gwah’ to me)
Shanghainese: wu (sounds like ‘woo’ to me) / ngu (I don’t know enough about Shanghainese grammar to explain the usage of ‘wu’ vs. the usage of ‘ngu’)
Hakka: ngai (it rhymes with the English pronoun ‘I’ so it’s easy for English speakers to remember this one)

Here is an example sentence (without tone markers)

English: I love you.
Mandarin: Wo ai ni.
Cantonese: Ngo oi nei.
Hokkien: Goa ai li.
Shanghainese: Ngu eh nong.
Hakka: Ngai oi ngi. (In some Hakka dialects it is ‘nyi’ instead of ‘ngi’).

There are some ‘tricks’ which can be used to help identify languages. Here are examples:

– of these five languages, only Shanghainese and Hakka have a ‘v’ sound
– Mandarin syllables NEVER end in -p, -t, -k, or -m
– the sounds ‘ia/ya’ and ‘ie/ye’ NEVER occur in Cantonese
– a lot of words in Hokkien seem to start with ki-, gi- kia-, & gia- (such as the Hokkien word ‘kiasu‘), and the ‘wee’ sound also seems more common than other Sinitic languages
– the ‘eh’ vowel is very common in Shanghainese

But the best way to learn how to identify these languages by sound is by exposure. I’d suggest watching that video about basic phrases at least a few times, and then here are some more videos for practice (for each language, I’m linking to one video with speech, and one song).

Mandarin: speech sample, song sample
Cantonese: speech sample, song sample w/ Eng subs & gun violence / same song, different singer, no violence (yes, it is a ‘Shanghai’ song in Cantonese – it’s the theme song for a drama set in Shanghai)
Hokkien: speech sample, song sample
Shanghainese: speech sample, song sample
Hakka: speech sample, song sample (I don’t think you need to know Hakka to understand the message of this music video)

Here is the challenge: can you identify the languages used in these five TV dramas?

TV Drama #1
TV Drama #2
TV Drama #3
TV Drama #4
TV Drama #5

And now here are some songs to test whether you can recognize the language. The songs at the top all have romanization, but the later songs in this list lack romanization. Also, at least one of these songs switches from one Sinitic language to another, so you need to listen to the whole song and identify EVERY Sinitic language which is used for at least an entire line of the lyrics.

You’re Breaking My Heart
Love Without Regret
Chinese Language
Overcast Day” (music video depicts domestic violence)
Nothing I Can’t Do
Taxi, Taxi, Taxi!!!
Beep Beep Beep
Peerless Youth
Danshui Sunset
Old Afternoon

I’ll post the answers in about a week.

If you already know at least one Chinese language before attempting this challenge, you probably did fine. Maybe it was even easy. If you don’t know any of the Chinese languages, this was probably hard, and maybe you were only able to guess a few correctly. That said, I think if someone who does not know Chinese at all sincerely tries this exercise, even if they do not do it very well, they will from now on be aware of these languages on a deeper level than they were before.

8 thoughts on “A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear

  1. If I’m in China and I hear something that sounds like Japanese or Korean, and I know it’s not, I figure it’s 上海话. For some reason I hear resemblances. Funny about the guanhua thing! Maybe they’re trying to popularize it (good luck with that!). Anyway, great post!

    • Though I’ve never thought of it that way, I agree, Shanghainese does sound a bit like Korean and Japanese.

      The choice of flags for that video presenting phrases in different Sinitic languages is also interesting, but I did not want to get into a digression about that.

  2. Really cool blog post.

    For a while after I lived in Hong Kong I could tell Cantonese from Mandarin pretty reliably. Mandarin, I found, had more of a… sibilant sound than Cantonese? A lot more “shue”s (that’s what it sounded like). And I think Mandarin has an “r” sound in it, unlike Cantonese. Plus, Mandarin’s just generally easier on the ears. I find Cantonese a very harsh language; in comparison, Mandarin is a lot smoother and softer. If you were comparing them to European languages, I’d say Cantonese is more like German and Mandarin is more like French.

    I never did learn to recognise any other Chinese languages, though, so if I heard someone speaking Chinese I couldn’t reliably say, “That’s definitely Mandarin!” – only “That’s definitely not Cantonese!” These days, I’m not sure if I’d even be able to manage that much, but maybe I would. When I watched “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” I could definitely tell it was the Cantonese version and not the (original?) Mandarin.

    • It is true that the ‘sh’ and ‘x’ sounds are both common in Mandarin (the ‘shue’ sound you speak of was probably ‘xue’ since ‘sh’ is never paired with the ‘ue’ in Mandarin). Mandarin also very much has an ‘r’ sound, especially as spoken by northerners.

      It’s also possible that you heard Taishanese, Hokkien, and/or Hakka in Hong Kong – heck, it’s possible that you heard any kind of Chinese in Hong Kong (in fact, while looking for Shanghainese videos, I found a video about famous Hong Kongers whose native language is Shanghainese). When I visited the Hong Kong Museum of History, they said that the four native peoples of Hong Kong were Punti, Tanka, Hoklo, and Hakka, and since Taishan is near Hong Kong a lot of Taishanese people have also settled in Hong Kong (I guess the museum considers the Taishanese people to be included under the ‘Punti’ label).

  3. That was really fun to read and to guess. The only two TV clips I’m not sure about are 2 and 3, but I am guessing that the one I haven’t heard much before must be Shanghainese. My only expose to this language is that the lady who is hired to clean our offices speaks this language and often has lengthy conversations with her parents via Skype.

    • I will be posting the answers soon, and then you will know what languages are used in TV clips #2 and #3.

      Like you, Shanghainese is the one I have by far the least exposure to, and thus it’s also the hardest one for me to identify.

  4. Pingback: A Guide to Distinguishing Sinitic Languages by Ear: Answers & Commentary | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  5. Pingback: Some thoughts on Shanghai Dream | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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