One of the most common online questions is which language is the most difficult for someone to learn these days. And also another common question is which language is the most important to learn in our changing world. Usually the answer to both of these questions is Chinese. Mainly because of the emergence of China as a Global Super Power and the fact that almost 1/7th of the world’s population speak it as a first language. Many people predict China to become the world’s biggest economy, some say as early as 2031. Reason enough then to learn it?
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.
Firstly, Chinese is not one single language but a collection of closely related 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 used in the media and in education and writing so this seems like the most obvious version to learn. Mandarin also has some other elements in its favour when comparing other Chinese languages, such as for example the fact that it has 4 tones compared to 6 to 9 tones in Cantonese. I am not a person who likes to learn things simply because they are 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 the easiest or most practical to learn, for some people it is still not easy enough. The main obstacles to learning it for some people are the tones and the thousands of Chinese Characters need to write the language 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.
What is this language? Well it is a form of Mandarin that is spoken outside of China in parts of the former Soviet Union and is written using the Cyrillic Alphabet. This alone cuts out thousands of hours of learning the complicated Chinese characters. To quick learners, the Cyrillic alphabet only takes a few hours to master. And as if this wasn’t enough, it only has 3 tones compared to standard Mandarin Chinese’s 4 or 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 its 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. This explains why Dungan Chinese was originally written in the Arabic script before they came under the Soviet Union.
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 fell under the influence of 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 Standard 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 successfully written with an alphabet. There 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 if you started learning Dungan Chinese, you could later make the transition to Standard Mandarin Chinese which would make learning much easier than if you started off with just Standard Mandarin in the first place. This would be especially true for Russian and Arabic speakers due to the numerous loanwords.
Thanks as always for your attention. Have a nice day!