Why I want my son to learn Suzhou dialect

Did you know that there are many different languages in China? Many people are only familiar with two: Mandarin, or what is known simply as “Chinese” and is the country’s official language, and Cantonese, which is spoken in Guangdong and Hong Kong. However, reality is a bit more complicated as there are hundreds of so-called dialects in China (a bit over 300, according to Ethnologue’s last count). Every city or region has its own one! Some of them are fairly similar to standard Mandarin, but others… not so much. It should be said that, although they are officially called dialects, many of these would actually be considered languages from a linguistic point of view. There are more similarities between Portuguese and Spanish than between Cantonese and Shanghainese, for example. In China, they are called dialects because of politics, not because of linguistics. Paraphrasing the famous quote, “a dialect is a language without an army”.

In Suzhou, the local language is called Suzhou dialect or Suzhounese (苏州话). It is similar to Shanghainese so speakers of both dialects can understand each other. To me, as a foreigner who studied Mandarin for years, at the beginning it sounded like an alien language with some (very) subtle hints of Japanese. To this day, after 8 years in Suzhou, I cannot speak the local language at all and I only understand a little bit. Shame on me! I actually started learning a bit after my son was born… because it’s his first language! I actively encouraged my husband and parents in law to talk to my son in Suzhounese. But why would I make Suzhounese his first language, when I could have my parents in law talking to him in Mandarin and my husband talking to him in English? Those two languages are way more useful, right? (I’ve been told this before). Let me explain why I want my son to learn Suzhounese:


– Because it’s his father’s native tongue

This should be a no-brainer, right? My husband’s first language is not Mandarin but Suzhounese. That’s the language he speaks with his parents and the rest of the family, and also the language he uses with his local friends and colleagues. To me it is very important that my son learns his father’s native tongue, the same way that it’s very important that he learns mine. Also, he was born in Suzhou and has the perfect chance to learn the language, so… why not?

My husband’s friends and colleagues think it’s very funny that our son can speak Suzhou dialect.


– Because not many children can speak it anymore

Did you know that a language dies every two weeks, on average? I don’t think Suzhounese is endangered yet, but nowadays very few local parents pass it on to their children and instead only speak to them in Mandarin. According to the data I found, in 1984 almost 95% of young people in Suzhou could speak Suzhou dialect fluently; by 2008 that number was down to a bit over 8%. I don’t think any of our local friends is speaking Suzhounese to their children so I can totally believe that survey. It might be a drop in the ocean, but my child speaking Suzhounese means extending a bit more the life of a language and a culture with a very long history. (If you think this reason is a bit weird, please bear in mind that I’m a language lover who has studied several languages, although I can only speak 3 fluently).

The dark green part means the % of young people who can speak fluent Suzhou dialect. Light green is can speak but not fluently, pink is can understand but not speak and orange is can’t understand.


– Because he will learn Mandarin anyway

By choosing to actively teach Suzhou dialect to my son, I’m not keeping him from learning Mandarin. Children’s brains are amazing and have no problem learning several languages at the same time. My son hears Mandarin at home when I speak to my husband or my in laws. He also hears it everywhere on the street, when playing with other children and on tv. When he goes to kindergarten, it will be the language used there. It might even happen that when he starts kindergarten, he won’t want to to speak Suzhounese anymore because all the other children will only speak Mandarin.

Suzhou dialect is not spoken at school.


– Because I don’t think there are useless languages

What a strange concept, a useless language. Is it based on the number of speakers or on the potential to land you a good job? I don’t think there are useless languages as all of them can help you communicate with some people and participate of a specific culture. Besides, learning languages is not a zero sum game; the more you know, the better! Your brain has space for all of them and the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn new ones.

Reading a book praising the Chinese Communist Party… We’re starting him early, hahaha.


“And what about English?”, you might be thinking. Am I teaching my son English? Well, not really. I’m focusing on Spanish, but he has books and songs in English, and also watches some cartoons in English. The other day he started saying “apple” and he knew what it meant. I have no idea where he learned it from! I’m not worried about his English because he will learn it later on at school (I didn’t start studying English until I was 8 years old!). For now, he is effortlessly learning Suzhounese, Mandarin and Spanish and can even translate words if you ask! I think that’s quite amazing for a 22 month old. I wish I’d been trilingual from birth!



Do you speak a minority language? Would you pass it on to your children?