China is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. The most common language in China is Standard Chinese. It is a language rooted in central Mandarin, however, the total amount of languages spoken in China is 302, according to the last Ethnologue survey. This is also the national language.
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71% of Chinese speak a variety of Mandarin, which is close to being a lingua franca in the Mandarin-speaking parts of China, as well as the rest of the mainland, though less so.
It is worth noting that Chinese autonomous regions, such as Hong Kong, do not obey this rule. For example, the Tibet Autonomous Region has Tibetan as its official language, while Mongolian is the official language in Inner Mongolia. Hong Kong has Cantonese and English as its official languages, and Macau has Portuguese and Cantonese.
The official languages of China are as follows:
- Standard Mandarin
Due to its vast linguistic diversity, the United Nations have made April 20th the Chinese Language day.
A thing you should know before visiting the country is that China does not refer to its languages as such, rather, they call them dialects. Despite the disagreement of linguists around the world, political reasons have made it so that they are referred to as such.
Chinese is also the world’s most common native tongue, being spoken by a grand total of 1.3 billion people. However, that is a bit disingenuous, as Mandarin speakers will be unable to understand, say Cantonese. The opposite, however, does not apply, as Chinese law makes it so that while cultural and regional autonomy might be permitted, those zones that do not have Mandarin as their native language will have to learn it as well.
There is a lot of linguistic debate on how many groups of Chinese languages there are, with numbers ranging from 7 to 10.
- Mandarin – The most spoken one, also known as Northern Chinese.
- Wu – Spoken mostly in the coast of Shanghai.
- Yue – This one is not intelligible by speakers of other dialects and is known as Cantonese.
- Xiang – spoken in Southern China’s Huan province, it is intelligible with Mandarin knowledge.
- Min – Spoken in the Fujian province, as well as Taiwan.
- Gan – Spoken in a variety of provinces, including Jiangxi and Fujian. It is also known as Kan.
- Hakka – Hakka is spoken mainly in isolated regions and is comprised of 13 different dialects.
The main reason for having so many is that historically speaking, China was not a united country and these regional differences spiraled into the various Chinese languages we know of today.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that many regions were geographically isolated. With no contact and interaction with their nearest neighbors, it is not impossible for them to only understand the dialects spoken within their own region. It should also be noted that these groups have millions of speakers as well.
Many of these groups are able to understand each other, however, there is an even larger number of those that are not quite as fortunate.