With a vast territory, a diverse population, and a long history, there are a whopping 302 individual languages spoken in China. Chinese languages are so important that the UN makes April 20th the Chinese Language Day to celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity. What language do the Chinese speak in different regions? Read this post and find out!
Is Chinese a language?
As the third largest country in the world by area, China is home to a variety of languages and dialects. However, when people talk about China’s national language, what exactly are they referring to? Is Chinese and Mandarin the same? Or is Chinese mandarin?
Yes and no.
China is a multinational state comprised of 56 ethnic groups, with over 91% of the population classified as Han Chinese, who use Mandarin as the lingua franca. So it’s natural for foreigners not familiar with Chinese history or ethnicity to mistake Mandarin for the language of China. With that in mind, the better question is, what are the main languages in China?
In China, people classify their languages as dialects due to geographical and political reasons. There are hundreds of thousands of types of Chinese language if all the variants of different dialects are counted. As language and dialect are sometimes used alternatively, it’s hard to figure exactly how many dialects are spoken in China.
What is the official language of China?
Despite the linguistic diversity and controversy over language and dialect, one thing is for sure. There is only one official national spoken language in China, Standard Chinese, also known as Putonghua/Standard Mandarin Chinese.
As the most common dialect and the official language of China, Mandarin is widely used as a second language by other Chinese dialects speakers whose mother tongue is Cantonese, Hakka, Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, etc.
How many languages are spoken in China?
The most accurate and responsible answer to this question would be “a lot.” Because there are just too many to count, the definition and distinction of language and dialect become a subject of much debate. But according to Ethnologue, the comprehensive reference work that archives all the world’s known living languages, there are 302 Chinese language dialects, among which 276 are indigenous.
Part of the Chinese languages listed below belong to at lest nine language families. Sadly, some of the languages have gone extinct.
Chinese Languages List
- Mandarin Chinese
- Jin Chinese
- Wu Chinese (Shanghainese)
- Huizhou Chinese
- Yue Chinese (Cantonese)
- Ping Chinese
- Gan Chinese
- Xiang Chinese
- Xiang Chinese
- Hakka language
- Min Chinese
- Dali language
- Yitdut language
- Bijiang language
- Bodish(Tibetan, Lhoba, Monpa)
- Ili Turki
- Fuyu Kyrgyz
- Western Yugur
- Old Uyghur (extinct)
Old Turkic (extinct)
- Torgut Oirat
Jie (Kjet) (extinct)
Traditional Chinese & Simplified Chinese - What are the differences?
Mandarin Chinese is generally considered the most challenging language for English speakers. If you decide to pick up Chinese, you will soon be bewildered by two complex Chinese writing systems: simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. Traditional Chinese has been used for thousands of years. Simplified Chinese is the reformed system of traditional Chinese scripts with reduced strokes and a reduced number of characters. It was developed to increase the literacy rate and facilitate written communication efficiency.
However, both scripts are used to write the Chinese language in different regions. Despite the dominance of simplified Chinese in mainland China, you can still see some traditional Chinese scripts mixed with simplified Chinese due to cultural and conventional reasons. Likewise, it’s not uncommon to see simplified Chinese texts in Hong Kong and Macau due to the close ties between mainland China and its autonomous regions.
How many foreign languages are spoken in China?
How many foreign languages are used in China?
Officially, there are only two – English and Portuguese.
As of May 2021, there were 846,000 foreigners living and working in mainland China. The major nationalities of China expat population include South Korea (21%), the United States (12%), Japan (11%), Myanmar (7%), Vietnam (6%), Canada (3%), France (3%), India (3%), and Germany (3%).
Despite the diversity of the nationalities, English is the most critical foreign language in China, which is used by native English speakers or expats living in the country. In international trade and engagements, English is also officially used as a lingua franca in China.
Interestingly, for historical reasons, English is also recognized as one of the two official languages in Hong Kong, with the other being Cantonese.
Another foreign language worth mentioning in China is Portuguese, which serves as the official language in Macau together with Cantonese.
Why are there so many languages spoken in China?
It’s difficult to imagine the staggering size and scale and its history without visiting the country on the ground and immersing oneself in the culture. The answer to the question “why many languages are spoken in China” is rather complicated. But to put it simply, expansive geography and long history are two significant contributors to the linguistic diversity of the Chinese languages.
In ancient times, when travel was time-consuming, inconvenient, and possibly dangerous, communication between different ethnic groups was rare, and people speaking the same language tended to stay in one area for their entire life with no opportunity to meet people from other ethnic groups. Not to mention hearing and learning their languages.
Even if two ethnic groups were descended from the same ancestor, their lingua franca would evolve into different variants over time, however unnoticeably. When they’ve drifted far apart for thousands of years, their languages have changed so much that they’ve become unintelligible to one another. This explains why a Mandarin speaker can’t understand a word said by a Cantonese speaker and vice versa, despite the same ethnic origin.
China is distinguished for its long history and rich culture. This time-honored nation has seen the waxing and waning of one dynasty after another, along with the expansions and contractions of its territory many times. The result was adding more languages to the Chinese language list.
Additionally, refugee groups also brought their languages and dialects from their homeland to their new settlements all over the country. The quintessential example is Hakka.
The challenges of localizing Chinese languages
Translating and localizing languages of China can pose a daunting challenge when you have no experience or expertise in adapting content to Chinese languages. How do you know what is the language your audience speaks in China?
Before starting your Chinese translation project, you must be clear about where the adapted content will be used – who are your target audiences? So that you can decide which Chinese language dialects to localize into or which Chinese variants best fit your audiences’ requirements.
And there’s more to the challenges:
Different industries and fields may have specific terminology in certain areas. For example, Cantonese speakers in mainland China refer to erasers as “胶擦”, while Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong refer to the same thing as “擦膠” “擦紙膠” or “擦字膠”. Despite terminological differences, Cantonese speakers from both areas are intelligible to each other due to the identical pronunciation of both dialects. However, Mandarin speakers refer to eraser as “橡皮” or “橡皮擦”, but it is pronounced differently. As a result, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers are unintelligible to one another.
As a result, it’s significantly critical to use experienced linguists native to your target dialects and familiar with the cultural and social requirements in the target region to ensure the effectiveness of Chinese localization.
Established in 2002 in the south of China, Wordspath is home to thousands of such linguistic experts with native-level proficiency in their native dialects and industry-specific knowledge in various fields and sectors across the country.
If you have a Chinese translation and localization project at hand and don’t know where to start, please contact our professional Chinese linguists immediately. They will provide fast and reliable solutions to all your Chinese language localization needs.
If you’ve reached this far, you must have the answer to the question, “how many Chinese languages are there?” China is a country with a long and immensely complex history and splendid cultures. It is natural to be home to a whole host of languages and dialects.
Meanwhile, as a global economic powerhouse, China is also a popular destination for foreign investments from all over the globe. If you’re considering leveling up your commercial success in China, get started by working with in-country language experts from Wordspath, who know all there is to know about the languages of China.