pondered the question of how many people in New Zealand speak Chinese.

Raymond Huo of the NZ Chinese Language Trust claimed that "Treating Mandarin, Yue or other Chinese dialects as independent languages is deeply flawed," because "it is similar to making statistical inferences about the difference between northern English, Oceania English and Indian English, or ... between pub talk and the King's English."

Actually, to better understand the linguistic situation in China, think of Europe as a single country, where everyone speaks the language of 'European', with the various different dialects of 'European' - for example French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish - all tracing their roots back to an ancient common ancestor that no longer exists.

Furthermore, imagine that the only language used in schools, on television, in movies and in government offices was German and that the only written language available for everyone to use was itself largely influenced by spoken German. Simply substitute Mandarin for spoken German and written Chinese for written German and we can clearly understand the nature of the problem.

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Linguists often say that the question of whether two varieties of speech are in fact different dialects of the same language or rather different languages altogether boils down to whether speakers of each variety can understand each other.

The father of modern Chinese linguistics, Professor Y.R. Chao, who himself had mastered many different Chinese 'dialects', once observed that the linguistic distance between spoken Cantonese and spoken Beijing Mandarin is about the same as that between spoken German and spoken English.

It is a well-worn cliché in China that one often only needs to travel a very short distance from one village to another to discover that that you can no longer understand what is being said. For a linguist, then, Chinese dialects are not simply different dialects, but are in fact different languages.

And exactly how do Chinese dialects differ from one another? Traditionally it is said that they differ most in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, but recent research by Chinese dialectologists has documented a number of important grammatical differences as well.

Where the NZ Chinese Language Trust have it right, however, is in the fact that for anyone from China or Taiwan under the age of sixty living in New Zealand, they will almost certainly be fully fluent in spoken Mandarin and completely literate in written Chinese, a system that is based on spoken Mandarin and not on their own spoken home dialects.

If the goal of Statistics New Zealand is to identify the needs of migrants from China and Taiwan, then 'Chinese' is enough to capture the required information. If, on the other hand, the goal is to understand what is happening inside the homes of Chinese-speaking families across New Zealand, then 'Chinese' becomes an extremely blunt and misleading label.

Dr Robert Sanders is a senior lecturer in chinese in the Faculty of Arts, University of Auckland.