Does anyone have advice for learning two similar langs, esp dialects?
February 7, 2016 5:05 PM   Subscribe

TLDR: my GF's (likely relatively soon to be wife) fam is from Shanghai. They don't speak much English, prefer shanghainese, and have fluent but heavily accented mandarin (somewhat ironically, their mandarin has atrophied a lot ok the US because they hang out only with shanghainese speakers!). I need advice for when and how to learn shanghainese! Snowflake details within...

Ok, so the original plan was to focus on learning mandarin, since everyone understands it, and it's the lingua Franca of China. So I've been working on that and am currently somewhat conversational, and I think with a year or two of continued focused study, I'll be in a good place.

But the complication! I've found that while learning mandarin has greatly increased my 1:1 communication ability with my gf's family, it has had no effect on my ability to be in a group. Yes, I think if I get more fluent they'll have more of an incentive to use mandarin when I am around (right now there's still some repeating and correction), but I think that fundamentally, they feel most comfortable with shanghainese.

SO: what to do? My original plan was to get good enough to be able to really communicate and understand in Chinese, then add some shanghainese to the mix. But I'm wondering if I shouldn't add some shanghainese to the mix earlier since I basically have recurrent, free study opportunities but without some study, can't really take advantage of it.

So this gets to the two questions:
- have you ever studied two languages? Is this an awful ideal?
- have you ever studied a language with very few educational resources? How did you tackle it?

Also, when I say "learn shanghainese" I mean mainly just build an ear for it... I don't know that I need to be able to speak because they really all do understand mandarin fluently.

Me and my gf do want to move to Shanghai for some time at some point, but that won't be for a while.

I see a couple options...

1. Never learn any shanghainese.
2. First get fluent in mandarin, then learn shanghainese
3. Keep focusing on mandarin, but still introduce some shanghainese so that I can get the most out of my interactions with her family.

I'm leaning towards 3, but my gf supports 2. I think she's afraid of shanghainese confusing/poisoning my mandarin, as I'm still intermediate there.

Any advice? And I mean, even if I want to learn some shanghainese, that in and of itself will present a problem. Mandarin has mountains of learning materials for foreign learners -- shanghainese has very very few. I'd probably try and track down a teacher on skype, and just make enough progress to understand the grammar and basic vocabulary.

posted by wooh to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm trying to learn Cantonese right now, and initially considered your option 3 since Mandarin is meant to be easier-- but I got strong advice from my teachers here to not try this as it would result in polluted mush. This may be because they correctly intuited my native language learning skills (very basic), but that's what they said. Have you spoken to your Mandarin teacher about it?

(There isn't a lot of Cantonese material for non-Chinese readers either-- you really need to work with tutors or with hand-made books from smaller schools to make much progress.)
posted by frumiousb at 5:23 PM on February 7, 2016

(By the way, my Shanghai friends tell me that Shanghainese is absolutely not a dialect of Mandarin and like Cantonese speakers, do not like the English word dialect to describe their language, particularly in relation to Mandarin. The logic being that since they fail the mutual intelligibility test, they are not dialects. There's a measure of politics in this, obviously. It makes many of my Chinese friends nuts that European languages which are much much closer than-- say-- Wu Chinese to Mandarin are designated uncritically as different languages while all Chinese-character based languages get lumped together as dialects or topolects.)
posted by frumiousb at 5:34 PM on February 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah wording it was hard. MEtafilter is unrelenting with its title word limit :p by the definition, shanghainese is definitely not a dialect and definitely is its own language... But it definitely has enough in common with mandarin that I bet studying both at the same time would be tricky! Say, like learning French and Spanish at the same time.

But I appreciate your point, as shanghainese definitely deserves full language status :) but I feel "how to learn a dialect" properly encapsulates the challenge of learning it, in that it is primarily learned at home, there are few outsiders learning it, there's another language that is the "official" language for business etc...
posted by wooh at 5:37 PM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a fluent Spanish speaker, and when I was in college I tried to learn French. No go. It just wouldn't stick in my brain.

Funnily enough, at this time I was also learning Mandarin, and something has happened inside my brain because of that. Whether it was because I was trying to learn two languages at once, or because I had the same professor teaching me both Mandarin and French (Zhang Laoshi was also Madame Zhang), to this day whenever I try to grab for some half-remembered French, it always comes out Mandarin. It's . . . weird to be in Morocco and want to say "Merci" to your waiter and have it inexplicably come out "Xie xie".

I would recommend option 2 and also recommend you being ok with having limited success at first. I think if I worked harder I could have gotten my brain to separate French from Spanish, and not mixed up French and Mandarin since I was learning them together . . . but I didn't have the time or really drive to work that hard.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:52 PM on February 7, 2016

If your goal is to feel better-included in groups, I think focusing on phrases that are exchanged at meal times or part of kitchen-speak with a few idioms thrown in for good measure will be the highest yield. Can your girlfriend compile a short list of words so that when you join her family for meals and such, you can catch on to the topic that is being discussed at hand, and go from there? I speak Cantonese with my family, and personally, I would much, much prefer that my partner learn Cantonese. If my partner spoke fluent Mandarin, that'd be neat, but I'd rather he have broken Cantonese, no ability to speak Mandarin, but understand key phrases in Cantonese, simply because Cantonese has such a greater emotional significance for me and my family. You say that your gf's family's Mandarin has "atrophied" -- it's exactly the same in my family, and with this "atrophy" comes this lack of emotional significance to words. Words in Mandarin are just words to my family, and we use it when we talk to people from other cities just fine, but Cantonese words have this idiomatic humor, life, color to everything. My friends who speak Shanghainese feel similarly about Shanghainese versus Mandarin.

I think one major obstacle, if you are concerned about confusing or blending Shanghainese and Mandarin, is whether you truly have the tones down when you do embark on learning the two languages. My significant other tried to learn both Cantonese and Mandarin for a while, but he struggled with differentiating as to when he was speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, and sometimes he could come up with the word in Mandarin but not Cantonese, and vice versa, but not be completely sure if he was saying it in Cantonese or Mandarin... it got muddy very quickly. I think the tones were the major stumbling point, because to a person who can hear the tones, Cantonese and Mandarin words would never be confused-- they sound completely different. I think it might be a similar situation in Shanghainese, and although I don't personally speak Shanghainese.

I do know that confusion often happens with people who try to learn Dutch and German simultaneously as well.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:08 PM on February 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I can't gauge how (dis)similar mandarin and shanghainese are, but ask yourself this: will you actively use mandarin, soon, consistently? Cuz if not, you'll effectively lose it quickly anyway. So I'd advise against a 50/50 approach (either concentrate on Shanghainese so you can fully converse with your gf's family... oooor stick with mandarin, "force" them to use it with you, and practice / use it that way).

Also, anecdotally, I did Italian at school and tried to do Romanian at home at the same time, and had to quit cuz it confused me. (I already spoke fluent French at that point, but they were just too similar and I was still too basic in either of them. So yeah, what gemutlichkeit said.)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 6:13 PM on February 7, 2016

Response by poster: I'd be curious to know from the people who know or had to study Cantonese if they agree or disagree with the following (I am just thinking it over): I think shanghainese and Cantonese are similar in that they are not mandarin, but dissimilar in that you can get MUCH farther, culturally, just knowing Cantonese than you can just knowing shanghainese. Obviously this depends on what my goals are, but everyone I talked to when deciding what to study -- and this includes shanghainese speakers -- said to learn mandarin first because shanghainese ONLY serves to open up these sort of family interactions, and would not be sufficient to work in shanghai, for example. Furthermore, the tangible cultural products in shanghainese are few, and not of particularly memorable quality. Lastly, there aren't substantial shanghainese communities in the US the way there are with mandarin and, arguably more prevalent, Cantonese.

So I think that is the difference. Just knowing Cantonese, you're going to be able to speak to a LOT of people. Family, yes, but also many restaurants in Chinatowns, as well as many people in many cities... Guangzhou and southern China, Hong Kong, as well as many people in Singapore etc. And Cantonese has a really productive culture industry which has create a LOT of really memorable, exported cultural products.

So while Cantonese is not as useful as mandarin in the raw number of people it reaches, it's wha way more useful than shanghainese. It is feasible to get by just knowing Cantonese in a way that I don't think is the same for Shanghainese.

Like I said, not decided on the above, would love your thoughts.
posted by wooh at 6:20 PM on February 7, 2016

Response by poster: Clarissa: my gf is fluent in mandarin as well, and her friend group are all mandarin speakers. It's more the generation above her that is mainly shanghainese.
posted by wooh at 6:21 PM on February 7, 2016

I converse with my wife in 100% Mandarin, and her family members speak to me in a mix of Mandarin and Shanghainese, and talk amongst themselves in 100% Shanghainese. After living in Shanghai for ten years and being married to a Shanghainese woman for seven, I understand enough Shanghainese for casual conversations at family gatherings, but still make the occasional hilarious mistake.

If you really want to be fluent in Mandarin and intend to use it regularly, I think it would make more sense to focus on that, and just pick up Shanghainese as you go. Not only will the Mandarin foundation help with learning Shanghainese, it also gives you access to a wider selection of textbooks and other tools. Plus, interjecting Mandarin into Shanghainese speech is much more acceptable (and intelligible) than vice-versa.
posted by bradf at 10:49 PM on February 7, 2016

I think (think) you could learn one language properly whilst (probably quite slowly) learning to comprehend another that is similar. Learning to speak and write a language requires practise at speaking and writing. I think a lot of learning to speak a language is muscle memory. You have to practise making those sounds and words until they become habitual. Recognising a word and understanding it is a different, easier skill than trying to say it out loud, or creating an intelligible sentence using it. I met quite a few germans and foreigners in living Switzerland who understood swiss german, but only ever replied in german. I think if you don't actually practise speaking and writing in shanghainese, you would be unlikely to accidentally use it.

Watch shanghainese tv with the english subtitles turned on. It's surprising how much you can pick up. Get hold of an english/shanghainese dictionary and some shanghainese children's books. You may need a grammar book to get started, but your girlfriend should be able to help. Make some shanghainese anki flash cards that you only use to practise comprehension with (even better if your girlfriend could provide the audio).
posted by kjs4 at 11:44 PM on February 7, 2016

My wife is Shanghainese so I've faced this. Thr main thing is to communicate, so focus on Mandarin first. Shanghainese actually has a large amount of overlap, but sounds like it doesn't because of the different pronunciation (tian is pronounced ti, etc). If your Mandarin is good you'll start picking up an ear for Shanghainese as you're exposed to it more. In the meantime learn some amusing colloquialisms like "yi ti si ga" and you're good to go.
posted by duoshao at 4:28 AM on February 8, 2016

I learned Mandarin first (for several years) then Cantonese later. I don't mix them up, and the Mandarin helped a lot in learning the Cantonese (grammar's say 80% the same). I agree that you can get much farther with Cantonese than with Shanghainese for the reasons you mention above. Mandarin + Cantonese lets me talk to the vast majority of huaqiao in Chinatowns throughout the world.

I do know how to say beer in Shanghainese though, and that's useful.
posted by mono blanco at 6:24 AM on February 8, 2016

Here's a different perspective to consider. Chinese is a spectrum of accents and dialects. Even if you learn Mandarin, you'll still find there are many people with all kinds of accents that will be hard for you to understand. It's a never-ending process to try to increase the range of accents you can understand. Any time you spend learning Shangainese will take away time from learning more Mandarin (including special phrases and all kinds of cultural and historical background behind them) and from getting used to more accents. So I would only spend time learning Shanghainese if you really think it's critically important for your family relationship but not for any other reason. That's my personal opinion.
posted by Dansaman at 5:16 PM on February 8, 2016

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