Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly used form of Chinese in the world, simply because it is the official spoken language of the People’s Republic of China. It’s hard to top 1.3 billion people. Mandarin is also the official spoken language of Taiwan. Although Mandarin is spoken on the Mainland and in Taiwan, they do use different forms of the written language. Also, the people tend to call Mandarin by different names in different places. In the Mainland, Mandarin is referred to as Putonghua, or the Common Language. In Taiwan, it is usually referred to as Guoyu, or the National Language.
The English name of Mandarin has it origins in that the language was the language that the imperial officials, or mandarins, used. Some Mandarin speakers find it funny that English should label Chinese as Mandarin. However, the name has stuck in the English language.
Most Chinese Northerners are native speakers of Mandarin, although it can come in many different forms. The standard Mandarin is the Beijing dialect, or Beijinghua. The Beijing dialect along with the Northeast dialects are characterized by the heavy rhotic elements, or heavy use of -er sounds, compared to other Mandarin dialects. When I was in China, I spent most of my time along the Yangtze, or Changjiang, River where they speak a Mandarin dialect without the heavy -er sounds. I remember some locals making fun of the erhua, or -er -dialect. One of my friend’s students gave him a tape of songs based on the Northeast Dialect, or Dongbeihua. If I remember correctly, there was a song about a Northeasterner, a Dongbeiren, and it was a little ditty about taking the bus in that section of China. It sounded really funny and I would have loved to land my own copy. I haven’t searched the Internet for it recently, so I should try again.
In today’s Vancouver, Mandarin use is on the rise. The various Cantonese dialects of Guangdong province used to dominate the Chinese soundscape here, but it’s quickly changing. Most Chinese immigrants are coming from Mainland China. In the 80′s and 90′s, it made sense for learners of Chinese to focus on Cantonese in Vancouver. But now that China is such a huge economic power and most new immigrants are from there, Mandarin is now the more logical choice. So Mayor Sam Sullivan learned Cantonese to endear himself to the Chinese population, but he may need to add more Mandarin to his vocabulary in the future. For public schools and university, Mandarin has always been the language taught in classes labelled as Chinese. There is even a Mandarin immersion school at Jamieson Elementary in Vancouver.
The face of Chinese media has also changed. More Mandarin speakers in Canada have also given rise to a national Mandarin language television channel, Talentvision. Channel M in Vancouver does the news in Cantonese and Mandarin, in addition to Punjabi. 96.1 FM in Vancouver is the Mandarin-language radio station.
So practice your nihao ma? (How are you?) a little more than your nei ho ma? (How are you in Cantonese). And when the new year comes, you’ll say Gong Xi Fa Cai, instead of Gung Hay Fat Choy. Just beware that most Mandarin speakers do not speak Cantonese, and a fair number of Cantonese speakers can speak some Mandarin. Although there is a saying in Chinese:
“I fear neither heaven nor earth; I fear only a Cantonese person speaking Mandarin”
Not always true, but a somewhat cute or offending saying, depending how you take it.
Wikipedia: Mandarin (linguistics): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_(linguistics)