Aside from English, Chinese is one of the most common languages in the world and its importance for the global business world has increased a lot in recent years. However, this statement is somewhat misleading, as Chinese is comprised of almost 300 dialects, all in all. As these dialects are not mutually intelligible, they are also often referred to as “Chinese languages”.
The Chinese dialects belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. However, Mandarin or Putonghua is considered the standard or official language of mainland China. Standard Chinese is often wrongly equated with the official language of the Han Chinese the biggest ethnic group in China.
As of the year 2000, the official language of mainland China, which is used in media, education, and formal communication, is commonly known as Mandarin, Standard Chinese, or Putonghua. It is based on the Chinese dialect spoken in Beijing. With more than 800 million native speakers, Mandarin is the most-used native language in the world. Moreover, it is considered one of the official languages of the United Nations.
While “only” a little over 50% of the Chinese population speak Mandarin as their mother tongue, many have learned it as their second language. Outside of the Chinese mainland, Mandarin is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore. This is one of the reasons why most foreigners decide to learn Standard Chinese as opposed to other dialects.
If Mandarin is the most commonly known Chinese dialect (or language if you will) then Cantonese is clearly first runner-up. Cantonese is the dialect of the Yue and is mostly spoken in China’s Guangdong Province, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Moreover, Cantonese is common in a lot of overseas communities in Southeast Asia and Western countries. In fact, it is a language you will hear in many Chinatowns around the world.
There are about 70 million speakers of Cantonese in total. Although Cantonese is a Chinese dialect, like Mandarin, the two are not mutually intelligible. Much of the pronunciation, grammar, and sentence structure is different and it is not uncommon that locals from different parts of the country have a hard time understanding each other.
Although Mandarin (Putonghua) and Cantonese (Yue) are the most common Chinese dialects, there are a huge variety of other dialects and languages spoken throughout the country, including Gan, Hakka (Kejia), Fujanese (Min), Shanghainese (Wu), and Xiang. Moreover, there are many minority languages spoken in China. This is not surprising, considering the sheer size of China and the fact that it is home to a total of 56 different ethnic groups.
While Mandarin is the only official language in most parts of China, there are some exceptions. In Guangdong, Cantonese is used as an official language, for instance. In Mongolia, the official language is Mongolian, whereas Tibetan is accepted as an official language in Tibet. The autonomous region Xinjiang even recognizes two official languages: Uighur and Kyrgyz.
The many different languages and dialects spoken throughout China can make communication rather difficult, even for the locals. The only saving grace is the fact that they all share the same written language. Chinese has about 56,000 characters in total, although most of them are rarely used. You need to know about 3,000 characters to be able to read a newspaper and college graduates know about 5,000 to 6,000 characters.
Chinese characters, also known as “Han characters” are among the oldest continuously used writing systems in the world, dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC). Unlike the Latin alphabet, Chinese writing is largely logosyllabic: each character represents one syllable and is made up of two parts. One part indicates the meaning, the other pronunciation.
However, Taiwan and Hong Kong again present an exception. While mainland China introduced simplified characters in 1959 to increase literacy, both Hong Kong and Taiwan still stick to the “traditional” characters.
Those who cannot write or read Chinese often use Pinyin, a method of transcribing the Chinese language into the Latin alphabet. It is an officially recognized method which was introduced by the Chinese government. The system includes so-called tone markers to hint at the correct pronunciation. However, on Chinese signs and in textbooks, Pinyin is not commonly used, which is part of the reason why only few Chinese can read it.
If you plan to live, work, or study in China, learning at least a few words of one of the Chinese dialects is essential. As the vast majority of China’s population speaks Mandarin (Putonghua), it makes sense to focus on this dialect when learning Chinese. It will increase your chances of understanding the locals (and being understood) in most parts of the country. When hiring a language teacher, make sure they actually speak Putonghua and don’t have a strong accent. Especially if you are living in China’s south where Mandarin is only the second language, you will meet many locals who know the dialect that is considered standard Chinese but don’t speak it very well.
Before you have even started to take classes or look for a teacher, you may have heard people say that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. While this might be true, most of it has to do with the sheer amount of Chinese characters. Try to decide early on if you want to learn spoken Chinese only, or if you also want to understand the written form. It should not take too long to pick up enough Chinese for basic communication. Learning the written language is a lot more challenging.
For some expats, even the spoken language may not be easy to learn, though. Chinese is a tonal language, with meaning assigned to a syllable, depending on the way it is pronounced. Thus, a syllable can have many meanings, depending on its tone and its combination with other syllables or “words”. (And, if you learn the written language as well, you will be delighted to find out that there is a character for each meaning.) However, the more you learn about the language, the more the meanings of different words will become clear in context. Moreover, it will make it easier for you to understand the Chinese culture.
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