Wenhao Diao

Diao“What is your experience of doing research in more than one language?”

I am an applied linguist interested in how people learn and use Mandarin when they study in China – in particular non-Mandarin speaking cities. China is a place where one may find many regional varieties that are not mutually comprehensible (Chen, 1999). As it becomes a key participant in global economy, its sociolinguistic situation is further complicated by different transnational cultural and linguistic flows. Yet in foreign language education in the West, Mandarin is often taught as “the Chinese language,” which not only contributes to the growing status of Mandarin but also leads to over-simplification of China’s sociolinguistic situation (Zhu & Li, 2014). For instance, in my most recent project, I examine English-speaking American students learning Mandarin in Shanghai, a traditionally non-Mandarin speaking city. I focus on their language use with various local people, including young college students in the dorm and Shanghai host family members. These students frequently encounter different accents, “dialects,” and languages in the dorm and the Shanghai family. The local people also constantly engage in metalinguistic discussions with the about the social and cultural meanings of these different varieties. For instance, while the college students would tell the American learners that features associated with southern Mandarin sound “cute” (and even “gay” if used by heterosexual men), the Shanghai family members create a space in the home where standard Mandarin is deemed too formal and hence inappropriate (Diao, 2013). The negotiations between different linguistic varieties constitute one of the most salient themes for these American Mandarin learners in Shanghai.

“What is your experience of becoming aware of the complexities in this area?”

I grew up speaking Wenzhounese as my “mother” tongue and Shanghainese as my “father” tongue – both literally and figuratively. I was born in a small town in suburban Wenzhou of China and Wenzhounese was my first language. At the age of six, I moved to Shanghai for school and learned Shanghainese and Putonghua (standard Mandarin). The transition shaped my views of language in various ways. While the mutually incomprehensible regional varieties (Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, and Mandarin) are officially categorized as “dialects” of one Chinese language, my own experience as a child makes me question the definition of language and multilingualism. Due to its political and socio-economic systems, Chins has a unique rural-urban distinction. Migrants in big cities often face social exclusion, marginalization and even discrimination (L. Zhang, 2001). I was the only migrant child in the class, experiencing cultural as well as linguistic difficulties as I spoke Putonghua with a “strange” accent and knew no more than a few phrases in Shanghainese. My accent was so “bad” that I was the only student that my teacher kept for hours after school to “correct” the pronunciation. Although it did not take me too long to learn to speak Shanghainese and Putonghua with the “right” accent, those days of alienation are forever a part of my childhood memories.

The struggles with Wenzhounese, Shanghainese, and Mandarin continued to my adolescent years. As I started to take a “Shanghai person” identity in middle school, I avoided speaking Wenzhounese at home (even when I was spoken to in the variety). It was not until much later in life when I began to study language and society did I become able to embrace my own history with place and language. Taking courses in applied linguistics in college and afterwards granted me a sense of liberation – they validated the struggles throughout my childhood and adolescent years.

Moreover, growing up in Shanghai in the 90s, I was also exposed to English from an early age (of approximately 7 years old). English also became symbolic of geographic and social mobility in China. Many of my friends in Shanghai took Japanese and/or Korean classes because of the wide popularity of Japanese and Korean TV shows as well as the growing communities from these neighboring countries in Shanghai. I was also frequently exposed to Cantonese and Taiwan Mandarin because people of my generation typically consumed popular culture from Hong Kong and Taiwan Mandarin (see Q. Zhang, 2005 for a description of the transnational linguistic flows from Taiwan/Hong Kong to Mainland China). As I became a language teacher and started to work with various kinds of Mandarin L2 learners that came to Shanghai, I observed their experience with different varieties in the city. These experiences have further contributed to my awareness of the multi- lingual and cultural nature of today’s urban space in China and beyond.


Diao, W. (2013). Learning Mandarin and socializing stance during a semester in China. Unpublished doctoral thesis. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University.

Zhang, L. (2001). Strangers in the city: Reconfigurations of space, power, and social networks within China’s floating population. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Zhang, Q. (2005). A Chinese yuppie in Beijing: Phonological variation and the construction of a new professional identity. Language in Society, 34(3), 431-466.

Zhu, H., and Li, W. (2014), Geopolitics and the changing hierarchies of the Chinese language: Implications for Policy and Practice of Chinese Language Teaching in Britain. The Modern Language Journal, 98, 326–339.