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BEST WAYS TO LEARN SHANGHAINESE
We cover the best ways to learn Shanghainese, with a man whose been there and done it all himself! These tips are all courtesy of our team member Alex, who lived in Shanghai, and learnt the local language!
If anyone knows, he knows! Take it away Alex…
If you have spent time in Shanghai and speak some Mandarin, you might have noticed that the local population sometimes speaks in a different dialect.
While the vast majority of people in Shanghai do speak Mandarin flawlessly, it is quite common to see Shanghainese people speaking among themselves in Shanghainese, a dialect of Chinese common to that city and also that area.
Also known as the Wu Language, it is essentially unintelligible from Mandarin Chinese.
However, while it might not seem like that at first.
In fact, the sounds feeling more like Japanese than Chinese to many people, Shanghainese is extremely similar to Mandarin Chinese as long as you know what to look for.
To help you on your journey to learn this unique language, I compiled a few tips and tricks that I have used to learn it better and faster.
Tips for Shanghainese – Learn Mandarin
Tips for Shanghainese – Focus On Differences
Tips for Shanghainese – Imitate The Sounds
Tips for Shanghainese – Get Inspired By Others
Tips for Shanghainese – Get a Native Teacher
TIP 1 – LEARN SOME MANDARIN CHINESE FIRST
Yes we know.
We are asking you to double up on the languages, not such an easy task!
Hear us out, it comes with good reasoning!
While you can learn Shanghainese without relying on Mandarin, knowing at least some Mandarin Chinese will go a long way in helping you with Shanghainese.
This can likely be true moreso than any other language given how much they crossover.
A lot of the vocabulary is essentially the same, whilst also using the same characters, with the only different being pronunciation.
This can then help you remember a lot more words and phrases than if you learned it from zero.
This is the way I did it and it really does help more than you’d think.
TIP 2 – FOCUS ON THE DIFFERENCES
On the other side of the coin, there are some differences between Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese that are important to point out.
Some of these are related to grammar.
For example, Shanghainese uses the possessive marker 个 instead of the commonly used Mandarin 的, while others might just be words that are completely different, such as 晨光 which is used in Shanghainese instead of 时候 in Mandarin, to mean “When…”.
Some other words might be the same, but mean different things in both languages.
For example, 小人 in Mandarin means a petty person, while in Shanghainese, it is just how you call children.
These differences are the ones that make Shanghainese especially interesting and it is worth spending time on learning them to sound more natural rather than just speaking Mandarin with a Shanghainese accent.
TIP 3 – IMITATE THE SOUND, NOT THE WRITING
As Shanghainese is less commonly spoken and is even less commonly taught than Mandarin Chinese around the world, there aren’t as many resources for learning it.
Due to this, there is also no consensus regarding how to teach the unique tones in Shanghainese, and those might be taught differently by different people.
My recommendation in this case would be to focus more on the sound itself, rather than the tones used.
Similarly, as there is no fixed Pinyin romanization system in Shanghainese, it is generally a better idea to try and imitate the pronunciation rather than focus on how you would write the word in Pinyin, as the latter often can confuse you more than help you.
TIP 4 – GET INSPIRED BY OTHER SPEAKERS
A big part of language learning is motivation, make no mistake.
As learning a language takes time and dedication, it is very easy to give up or settle for a low level.
To negate this, it is very useful to find “role models”, or other Shanghainese speakers either in your vicinity or on the Web, to inspire you to study further and try to reach their level.
One of the most famous Shanghainese speakers is Thomas 阿福, a German Youtuber, who became famous specifically because of his Shanghainese skit, acting out his interactions with his Shanghainese mother-in-law (see below).
Another famous foreigner in Shanghai with really impeccable Shanghainese is Jamie Lawman, who made a skit as part of a Shanghainese TV show interviewing people on the street in Shanghainese.
TIP 5 – GET A NATIVE SPEAKING TEACHER
At one point in your studies, you will need to specifically start practicing speaking.
As Shanghainese is mostly a spoken language, this is likely to come at an earlier stage than other languages, as you won’t be able to find much written materials for it.
In this case, hiring a teacher specifically to practice speaking with you and help you drill the harder sentences and more unique words is a great idea.
There aren’t that many resources for teachers of Shanghainese specifically.
However, you are in luck!
TIP 6 – UTILISE YOUTUBE
To improve on listening and immersion of the language, you will need to find more resources to use in your daily life.
To really learn a language effectively, you need to make sure to surround yourself by the language as much as possible, which is somewhat harder to do with a non-central language such as Shanghainese.
YouTube is therefore without doubt one of the best ways to learn Shanghainese. Having a variety of Shanghainese TV shows and dramas specifically made in Shanghainese to promote Shanghai culture.
One older resource for this is 闲话上海滩, a TV show about Shanghainese culture that ran in 2014.
TIP 7 – LEARN LOANWORDS
Not many people know this, but a lot of the words in Shanghainese come from English, due to the close connections Shanghai had with the foreign community when China started opening up at the end of the Qing Dynasty.
Some examples of this as 差头, meaning “Taxi”, coming from the word “Charter” and 轧三胡, meaning “To chat”, coming from the word “Gossip”.
These are words that normally do not exist in Mandarin Chinese, and make Shanghainese even more interesting and fun to learn.
The more you learn, the more natural and native-like you will sound.
TIP 8 – REVIEW OFTEN
As with any language, reviewing content is key!
The more often you review vocabulary and sentences, the more they will stick in your head. Simple as that!
This allows you to reach true fluency in the language faster.
Resources such as Anki are crucial here, as they will allow you to hear the same sentences and phrases over and over, until the words and phrases are drilled in your head.
Once the material is drilled in, it will pop out whenever you need it, without having to think about.
TIP 9 – MAKE FRIENDS
As Shanghainese resources on the internet are quite limited, making Shanghainese friends is even more important, in order to further practice speaking outside of study hours.
Thankfully, due to the lack of fluent Shanghainese speakers even among the foreigner population living in Shanghai, Shanghainese people are even more excited to meet Shanghainese speaking foreigners than Mandarin speakers.
This in turn makes them a great resource, as they will want to actively help you improve your Shanghainese.
They will give you positive feedback every time you try to speak with them.
TIP 10 – PLAY WITH THE LANGUAGE
Most importantly, enjoy the process! Language learning is a journey, not a destination. The more you play around with the language and the words, the more you will enjoy it.
This means trying to do word games with the language and joking around using it.
The more amused you are by it, the faster you will learn it.
With a language like Shanghainese, the hopping from Shanghainese to Mandarin and back helps progress in both languages, as well as increases your interest in it.
BEST WAYS TO LEARN SHANGHAINESE – FINAL THOUGHTS
The above are a few tips I gathered from learning Shanghainese and other languages. While my Shanghainese is still far from perfect, I study it as often as I can and make it a point to mention it whenever I meet Shanghainese people.
The excited looks on their faces and the appreciation they have for a foreigner not only learning their official lingua franca (Mandarin Chinese), but also specifically the language of their family makes it all worth it.
As the quote, often attributed to Nelson Mandela, goes: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Are Shanghainese and Mandarin the same in general?
They are actually very different, yet also have some key similarities.
We wrote this about the differences between Shanghainese and Mandarin.
Generally the pronunciation and tones completely differ to Mandarin meaning a good Mandarin speaker probably wouldn’t have a clue when listening to Shanghainese.
Do you teach other dialects?
Yes we do! And we love doing it!
Why? Because we care.
Only 20% of the population in Shanghai speak Shanghainese, but we want to help preserve it, and there is still a genuine demand to learn it which is great!
Can I learn Shanghainese with LTL?
You can indeed. We’ve been teaching it for years.
We teach Shanghainese to our students in person as well as online.
If you are in Shanghai, come and find us.
How many people speak Shanghainese?
The rough number of Shanghainese speakers is 15 million people.
How do you say Hello in Shanghainese?
Hello in Shanghainese is pronounced “nong hoh”, different to the Mandarin equivalent of “ni hao”.