I often see online some questions about which is the most important language to learn nowadays. The most common answer is that Chinese is the most important language to learn. Mainly because of the emergence of China as a Global Super Power and the huge population it has. Many people predict China to be the world’s biggest economy, some say as early as 2031. Reason enough?
So why doesn’t everyone learn Chinese?
There seems to be a series of daunting challenges that discourage some people from taking the plunge and learning it. But first, an Overview.
First of all, Chinese is not one single language, it is a collection of closely languages. Some are easier to learn than others. Mandarin is the most widely spoken variety of Chinese with almost 960 million speakers, and it is also the standard language in the media and in education and writing so this seems like the most obvious version to learn. Mandarin also has some things going for it also, versus other Chinese languages, like for example it has 4 tones compared to 6 to 9 tones in Cantonese. I am not a person who likes to learn things simply because it is easier but most people seem to like results quick and easy.
So Mandarin is what most people end up deciding to learn. However, despite Mandarin being easier to learn, for some people it is still not easy enough to learn. The main obstacles to learning for some people are the tones and the thousands of Chinese Characters which take years to master. But…what if I told you there was another way…
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you, Dungan Chinese.
Why is it ideal to learn? First of all, it is not written in Chinese characters, it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet that is used mainly for Russian and Slavic languages. And second of all, it only has 3 tones compared to standard Mandarin Chinese’s 4/5 even though it itself is a form of Mandarin. Well that looks less daunting doesn’t it?? Let me explain how this is the case.
Dungan Chinese is spoken by the Dungan people who live in the former Soviet Union republics of Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This alone explains why Dungan is written not in Chinese characters but in the Cyrillic alphabet. The same is the case for Mongolian which originally had it’s own script until it became part of the Soviet Union, where it then began to use the Cyrillic Alphabet.
The Dungan people, are ethnically Hui Chinese (a mainly Muslim ethnic group of Chinese), who fled from China following the aftermath of the Hui Minorities’ War in the middle and end of the 19th century. Some say 20 million died in these revolts against the Qing Dynasty.
Due to the religious beliefs of its speakers, Dungan Chinese contains many loanwords from Arabic. The use of these was perhaps exaggerated during the period of persecution in the late 19th century as a way of keeping their communications secret from the Chinese.
Following the Hui migration into what would become the Soviet Union, the language also became highly influenced by Russian along with neighboring Turkic languages and it began to be written with the Cyrillic Alphabet. During the Soviet era, Russian technical vocabulary began to enter Dungan which made it a more unique form of Mandarin.
Although it is a form of Mandarin, under the Soviet Union it developed its own standard from the Gansu dialect, which again further distanced it from the more widely known Beijing dialect.
Nowadays, mutual intelligibility varies between Dungan Chinese and other forms of Mandarin. It is reported that speakers of the Beijing variety of Mandarin can understand Dungan to an extent, however this does not work both ways. The influence of the foreign vocabulary, along with also archaic Qing-dynasty vocabulary that is not preserved in other forms of Chinese does not help this.
Here is an Example of Written Dungan.
1) Where is my room?
2) Where is the beach?
3) Where is the bar?
4) Don’t touch me there!
So why is Dungan Chinese important and why should you know about it?
Well first of all it is an example of how Chinese can be written with an alphabet. They are many that argue the contrary and that it is even impossible!
Secondly, and this is just my opinion, it can be used as a linguistic stepping stone. What I mean by this is that learning this for a few months could make learning full on Beijing Mandarin less daunting afterwards. This would be especially true for Russian and Arabic speakers.
“But wait!” I hear you cry. Why would you waste time learning a language barely anyone speaks when you could spend that time learning more widely spoken Chinese. Well this is for people like me. I am a confidence person. When something is going well for me I am exhilarated and it gives me a new lease of life and focus and drive to do better. So if I started on an easier language, and was able to pick it up quickly, it would encourage me to push on then with Mandarin as it would not be so daunting. I mean how many people have started learning Chinese, become disheartened and given up. And how many people intend to start learning but are too daunted by the Characters for example to make a proper start at it.
I don’t mind learning extra languages anyway because I am a polyglot and I love linguistic oddities and Dungan certainly is one!
Linguistic oddities are to be treasured. And learning a language with not many speakers is cool in my opinion because when a language is endangered, any speaker gained is appreciated and a huge help and even if you learn it briefly as a linguistic stepping stone, you will be helping keep a linguistic oddity alive.
Thanks as always for your attention. Have a nice day!