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What Language do Chinese People Speak?

    The short (but incomplete) answer to this question is: Mandarin.

    However, China’s landmass (approx. 9.6 million km²) is similar to Europe’s (approx. 10.18 million km²).

    It is 2,100 miles (3,379 km) from its northern most city (Mohe) to its southern most city (Sanya). That’s further than the distance between Norway and Sicily…

    So, in this giant country, there are many different Chinese and non-Chinese dialects and languages.

    Let’s take a closer look at them.

    What is the Chinese language?

    ‘The Chinese language’ is technically a category of languages and dialects spoken by Chinese people.

    So, from one point of view, it is a bit like saying ‘the Germanic languages’ (German, English, Dutch, etc.) or ‘the Romance languages’ (Italian, French, Spanish, etc.).

    There is a lot of linguistic diversity in China, including are several different ‘regionalects’ of Chinese. They all belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family of languages.

    Dialects or languages?

    Most of the different types of Chinese language are almost all classified as dialects within China.

    However, some linguists consider many (but not all) of them to be different languages.

    In order of number of speakers (most to least), these different types of Chinese are:

    • Mandarin: The official national language and most widely spoken form of Chinese (see below)
    • Wu: Mainly spoken in the Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu region of eastern China. This includes Shanghainese
    • Cantonese: Spoken in southern China, including Hong Kong and Guangdong province
    • Xiang (or Hunanese): Spoken in Hunan province and parts of neighbouring provinces
    • Hakka: Spoken by the Hakka ethnic group across parts of southern China and Taiwan
    • Southern Min: This originates in Fujian province in south-east China and is also spoken across the strait in Taiwan
    • Gan (or Kan): Originates in Jiangxi province
    • Northern Min: This is spoken in Nanping prefecture in northern Fujian.

    This list doesn’t cover every language or dialect group in China. There are others with less speakers, such as Manchu in north-eastern China.

    Furthermore, each group can be divided into sub-dialects that can be quite different from one another.

    What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?

    And old joke asks “What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?’ The answer is: “An army.”

    Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are very similar. Speakers of each can usually understand the others relatively well. However, these are all classified as different languages.

    In China, the word ‘话’ (huà) (‘speech’) is used to distinguish dialects from ‘语’ () or ‘文’ (wén) (both mean ‘language’).

    The different Chinese languages spoken are usually labelled huà, whereas ones from outside of China are called yǔ or wén.

    This is often the case even for mutually unintelligible huà in China – ones with totally separate pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc.

    In some cases, such as with Cantonese (see below), things get more confusing.

    Cantonese is a variation of Chinese that in Mandarin is sometimes referred to as:

    • 广东话 [Guǎngdōnghuà]- ‘the speech/dialect [huà] of Guangdong
    • 粤语 [Yuèyǔ ] – Guangdong and Guanxi language []

    Is the Chinese language similar to the Japanese or Korean languages?

    Chinese is not closely related to the other two main east Asian nations’ languages: Korean and Japanese. 

    What is Mandarin Chinese?

    Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China. It is used as a common language of communication all across China.

    It is the language spoken in all schools and universities and most media channels in China. It has approximately 900 million native speakers.

    Mandarin is based on a mixture of the forms of Chinese found in Northern China, especially in and around the capital, Beijing. It is a tonal language (see below). 

    A report by the Chinese Ministry of Education published about a decade ago (and since taken offline) stated that:

    • 30% of our nation’s population does not speak [Mandarin]
    • Out of the 70% who can speak [Mandarin], only 1 in 10 can speak [Mandarin] articulately and fluently.

    However, despite this, Mandarin usage and fluency are growing rapidly…

    Each year approximately 100 million Children attend primary school in China (where they are taught in Mandarin).

    And, as people move cities and join companies, many Chinese dialects are being spoken less and less.

    What are the tones of Mandarin Chinese?

    The four main tones of Mandarin are:

    • First tone: This is a high level. E.g., mā (妈 – mum/mom)
    • Second tone: This is a high rising. E.g, má (麻 – numb)
    • Third tone: This is a low dipping. E.g,  (马 – horse)
    • Fourth tone: This is high falling. E.g., mà (骂- to scold/curse)

    There is a fifth tone, which is actually an atonic or neutral tone. This means the word is said without any tonal emphasis.

    Picture showing the four main tones of Mandarin
    The four main tones of Mandarin Chinese

    Why is it called ‘Mandarin’ Chinese?

    ‘Mandarin’ comes from the Portuguese version of a Hindu word (mantrū) which means ‘counsellor’.

    When Portuguese traders and travellers first entered China, they noticed that the educated elite had their own unique language. It was quite different from many other Chinese dialects.

    Hence, they labelled this the ‘Mandarin’ language. (A mandarin is a senior government bureaucrat or official).

    This was an early form of Mandarin, which wasn’t developed more fully until the early-to-mid 20th century.

    Today, the name has stuck and is to a large extent still true – the mandarins of China do mainly still speak mandarin.

    The concept of a official language and dialects spoken in China has been around since at least Confucius’ time (about 2,500 years ago).

    子所雅言,《诗》、《书》、执礼,皆雅言也。
    Occasions when the master [Confucius] did not use dialect: when reciting the Poems and the Documents, and when performing ceremonies. On these occasions, he always used the correct pronunciation.

    – The Analects (7.18)

    How do you say Mandarin in Chinese?

    In (Mandarin) Chinese, Mandarin is known as Pǔtōnghuà [普通话] (pronounced ‘poo tong hhwaa‘) .

    This can be directly translated into English as ‘common language’ orlingua franca.

    To others, most Chinese people simply refer to it as:

    • 中文 [Zhōngwén] (pronounced ‘jong when‘ ) – ‘Chinese language’
    • 汉语 [Hànyǔ]) (pronounced – ‘han yew‘) – ‘language of the Han’. (‘Han’ is the name for the dominant ethnic group in China, which makes up approximately 90% of the population)

    What is Cantonese Chinese?

    Cantonese is primarily spoken in Hong Kong and the nearby southern provinces of Guangdong and Guanxi.

    It is a tonal language with 6 tones (Mandarin has 4). And many linguists have pointed out that it is a much older language than Mandarin.

    If you only understand Cantonese or Mandarin, you can’t by default understand the other language. However, you may be able to comprehend a lot (but not all) of its writing.

    It shares (most of) a writing system with Mandarin. The Cantonese in Hong Kong still uses traditional Chinese characters. But in Mainland China, it uses simplified Characters, like Mandarin (in Mainland China) does.

    The written form of Chinese

    Biáng – said to be the most complicated Chinese character (it requires 42 brush strokes when written by hand)

    One of the most distinguishing features of Chinese is its writing system.

    It is one of the oldest systems of writing in the world and heavily influenced the cultures of Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

    To many around the world, it looks unique and complicated. It has characters instead of letters. 

    Knowing 2,000 characters is considered by many to be enough to meet basic literacy standards in the Chinese language.

    Knowing between 5,000 – 8,000 is enough to be considered highly literate. 

    Complete Chinese dictionaries should have about 80,000 characters… (there are many that are no longer in use).

    Chinese characters can used to write several varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin, including Wu Chinese.

    They are also used in Japanese and Korean, but with different pronunciation and sometimes different meaning, too.

    The importance of brush strokes

    Chinese characters are written using specific strokes.

    These strokes have a set order and positioning. Variations of them can be used for the different types of writing scripts, but the basic structures remain the same.

    They were originally written with a specific Chinese brush. But they can be written in the same way using pens and pencils.

    Chinese calligraphy

    Detail from Tale of the Luo River Goddess calligraphy by Zhao Mengfu
    Detail from Tale of the Luo River Goddess (Yuan Dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, ink on paper, running script, 29.5 x 192. 6cm. Original copy’s location uncertain. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Unlike in most places around the world, calligraphy is very popular in China. 

    Chinese calligraphy is unique. It is practiced using brushes and ink rather than pens or quills and it several styles that date back thousands of years.

    Across China, calligraphy is seen as one of the highest – if not the highest – traditional art form. Mastering it takes years of practice and study.

    What is classical Chinese?

    Classical Chinese is the written form of Chinese used for thousands of years by China’s educated elite. It did change over the years, but it is still very similar to ancient Chinese. 

    One thing people notice about it is how rich it is. Complex meanings can be expressed with less characters than modern Mandarin. 

    However, Classical Chinese takes more study to learn than modern Mandarin. There are many idioms and new characters to learn which aren’t a part of everyday speech today.

    What is baihua?

    ‘Baihua’ (Báihuà [白话]) (literally ‘white/clear language’ ) is the name for modern vernacular written Chinese. It reflects more accurately common speech version of the Mandarin language.

    Is English widely spoken in China?

    Of all the foreign languages spoken in China, English is the most popular. It is taught in many schools and private institutions across the country. 

    The challenge is to define the difference between speaker and learner. Way back in 2024, it was estimated that about 10,000 million Chinese spoke English, and 200 – 300 million were familiar with some English words.

    At present, I can’t find a more recent source than that!

    However, in my experience, many university-educated Chinese people are at least able to communicate in English.

    Summary

    ‘What do Chinese people speak’ sounds like a simple question. But as we have seen, the answer is a bit more complicated than you might think.

    China has a lot of linguistic diversity. Many of its spoken languages or regional dialects are mutually intelligible, others are not.

    Many cities have their own Chinese dialect, though most inhabitants also speak the official language, too.

    Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in China – this is because it’s the official language of the country, used in education, politics, and business.

    Cantonese is likely its third most spoken language. It is spoken in parts of southern China, including Hong Kong.

    Over 70% of the Chinese population are can speak at least some Mandarin, which could be about 900 million people. This figure – and the number of native speaker-level Mandarin speakers – is growing as more Children enter the education system.

    Unlike most European languages, many Chinese languages are tonal. This means a word like ‘ma‘ can be pronounced in 5 or 6 different ways, each one meaning something completely different.

    Chinese uses a unique writing system based on Characters. There are thousands of different characters, all made up of set strokes. There are two main variations of it: simplified (used in Mainland China) and traditional (used mainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan).

    Chinese writing has been around for thousands of years. Unlike many languages based on alphabets, ancient Chinese texts can be read relatively easy (though they do use Classical Chinese, which is different from the modern form of written Chinese).