Chinese is generally said to have eight different dialects. Mandarin is the native dialect of about two-thirds of the population, the "wu"dialect spoken in the lower Yangtze area is spoken by about 10% of the population, and the "yue"dialect (Cantonese) is spoken by about 5% of the population. All these dialects differ in both pronunciation and also in grammar, enough so that they are sometimes said to be as different as members of the Romance of Germanic language families One study estimates the dialects differ 20% in grammar, 40% in vocabulary, and 80% in pronunciation (cited in DeFrancis, The Chinese Lange, P.63).
Despite these seemingly large differences, the reliance of Chinese on characters as a basic semantic unit implies that much of the differing vocabulary can be readily deciphered just by knowing which characters formed the words. The differences in pronunciation are also overstated. A speaker of one dialect need not memorize new pronunciations for 80%of the words in a new dialect. All the tens of thousands of words in each dialect are composed of just a few thousand characters, so once a few thousand words comprised of these characters have been learned, most of the remaining words can be generated with little difficulty.
Moreover, all of the Chinese dialects have very few syllables, way, While the differences between the dialects are often overstated, many of the dialects have tonal patterns which are far more complex than those of Mandarin, making complete mastery very difficult even for speakers of closely related dialects.
Editor: Li Guixiang.