One of the questions that I’m often asked is: “Should I learn to speak Mandarin or Chinese?”
To answer the question, you’ll need to understand the definitions of the two words: Chinese and Mandarin.
The word Chinese refers to a broader concept.
Chinese is a body of language, which is written and spoken.
Mandarin, in contrast, is a form of spoken Chinese. It is often thought to be equivalent to Chinese, because it is the most widely used spoken Chinese, and is also the official spoken Chinese.
It is for this reason that when you are talking about speaking Chinese, many would think that you are talking about speaking Mandarin.
In this case, Mandarin IS Chinese.
The Chinese language, nevertheless, is spoken in many other manners as well. Mandarin is only one of them. They are known as dialects. There is a great number of them, grouped under a dozen of bigger families.
The dialects are not always mutually comprehensible. So do not be disappointed if you, having learned the basics of mandarin, cannot understand a word when you are among a group of native Chinese.
They could be speaking Chinese dialects, rather than Mandarin.
You may find it a relief: So long as you can speak Mandarin, you can travel all over China and communicate using the spoken language without problems.