To most of us, the difference between a language and a dialect seems, on the surface, to be pretty straightforward and to generally follow the definitions of each, as provided by Merriam-Webster online:
Language: The words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.
Dialect: A regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language.”
Most linguists would base their definition on the level of understanding between speakers of a language and/or dialect: in other words, if two people can understand one another, they are speaking the same language. A language expert would probably believe this to be true even if there are numerous differences between the two versions of language, in which case the two speakers would be speaking two different dialects of the same language. While this may be the view of linguists, not everyone would agree.
Some people differentiate languages and dialects based on their formality, or the lack thereof. Following this line of reasoning, a language would be a form of communication that is somewhat more official than a dialect, and which is commonly used in written as well as oral form. A dialect, on the other hand, would be a much less formal means of communication that would be typically only spoken and not written.
While almost every language takes on different forms – i.e., dialects – the most striking example is undoubtedly the Chinese language and its variants. Although Cantonese is a dialect typically offered in foreign language study programs – and the official language of Hong Kong and Macau — Standard Chinese (a form of Mandarin Chinese) is the official language of mainland China. The 56 different ethnic groups that reside in China speak a wide variety of languages and dialects – many of which bear little resemblance to the “official” language of Standard Chinese. Each of the seven major dialect groups of Standard Chinese have, in turn, many of their own dialects. The seven major groups include Mandarin, Wu, Gan, Xiang, Hakka, Yue (Cantonese) and Min. While it’s true that some of these are much more widely spoken than others, even the least-spoken Chinese dialect (Gan) is still spoken by an impressive number of people — about 23 million, to be exact.
Although many linguists would likely group this myriad of dialects together under a single Chinese language umbrella, countless speakers of these dialects would probably disagree. In fact, many of these dialects differ so much from one another that communication between its speakers is challenging, if not impossible. To further muddy the issue, the various Chinese dialects often use the same characters when writing the language, even though pronunciation differs wildly depending on which dialect is spoken.
Given the complicated nature of Chinese, as well as other languages, it’s understandable why people might disagree about what constitutes a language versus a dialect. Maybe, in the big picture, the linguists’ definition really is the best after all: it all boils down to the ability to communicate with one another. If you can’t understand your dinner companion, chances are, you are speaking a different language.