Languages of China

hello in chineseChina (officially the People’s Republic of China (PRC)) is massive by almost any measure.  One of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, China has over 1.3 billion people, is a leader in world trade, military might, and land size (over 3.7 million square miles or 9.7 square km).

According to Ethnologue, China has 56 ethnic groups and almost 300 living languages.  These languages are, as expected, geographically focused.  Luckily, we do not need to learn or translate into almost 300 languages, as the languages are grouped into 7 major dialect groups, and a handful of languages represent the general language of China.  The 7 dialect groups are (modernly) named: Mandarin → Jin; Wu → Huizhou; Yue → Pinghua; Min; Xiang; Hakka (Kejia) and Gan.

China’s use of language is strictly governed by various legal entities in the various regions (see List of Language Regulators)

Standard Chinese, a form of Mandarin Chinese, is the official national spoken language for the mainland and serves as a lingua franca within the Mandarin-speaking regions (and, to a lesser extent, across the other regions of mainland China).  Standard Chinese is known in China as Putonghua, loosely translated to “common speech”.

Cantonese has over 80 million speakers and is used as the lingua franca in Hong Kong, Macau and the region of Guangxi. Cantonese can be divided into three main dialects: the Guangzhou dialect, Hong Kong dialect, and Macau dialect.

Here is a list of the most common languages of China, and the regions where they commonly apply:

  • Standard Chinese or (Standard) Mandarin: mainland China (PRC), Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia
    (Sometimes called Simplified Chinese or Simplified Mandarin).
  • Cantonese: Hong Kong, Macau, Guangxi region
  • Tibetan: Tibet Autonomous Region
  • Mongolian: Inner Mongolia

china regionEnglish is the most common international language learned and spoken in China, followed by Japanese and Portuguese. (Macau’s official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese. However, the use of Portuguese in on the decline since the transfer of Macau from Portugal to the PRC).

China is a fascinating country with fascinating cultures and history, and this is well-reflected in the variety of languages and dialects. It is also a world power and the unification of the country’s regions have led to the standardization of languages and adoption of a few core languages that serves this entire mighty nation.


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