With a population of 1.4 billion people and counting, China is a vast country with hundreds of spoken languages and dialects.
While Mandarin is the official language, there are several distinct languages spoken all over the country.
If you’re planning a new teaching career, the linguistic diversity can be daunting. For that reason, we’ve put together a handy guide to languages in China.
From Mandarin and Cantonese to Hakka and Wu, here’s everything you need to know about Chinese languages.
How many languages are there in China?
The most widely spoken languages in China are Mandarin and Cantonese, but these are just two of many.
Look at a map of China, and you’ll soon begin to realise just how enormous the country is.
Home to the world’s largest population, China shares land and sea borders with 14 different countries, stretching from Japan and North Korea to India and Russia.
It’s no surprise then, that many hundreds of languages are spoken there. The official language count puts the total figure at 302 ‘living languages’ actively spoken by Chinese citizens.
This figure includes languages and dialects. While some of these are similar or mutually intelligible, many more belong to entirely distinct language groups.
While Cantonese is spoken in (south) China, for example, in the far west of China you can find people speaking Kazakh, in the north, Mongolian, and in Macau, Portuguese.
This wide variation in languages represents thousands of years of Chinese history, including political and cultural upheavals, European colonisation and Chinese expansion.
For a linguist, this diversity is fascinating, but for teachers, it’s a complexity that can take some time to understand.
What’s the Official Language of China?
With so many regional, geographical and cultural differences to contend with, you’ll be happy to know that China does have an official language that is widely spoken or understood across the entire country.
This language is Putonghua, and it’s based on a dialect of Mandarin that’s widely spoken in Beijing, the Chinese capital.
It’s estimated that at least 70 per cent of the Chinese population (over 900 million people) speak Putonghua as a first language, and it’s the primary language you’ll encounter across the country.
With that in mind, if you’re planning on learning one Chinese language, then Mandarin, or Putonghua, is the one to go for.
In practical terms, many of China’s most widely spoken languages belong to the same language family. This is known as the Sinitic language family, which is a branch of the wider Sino-Tibetan language family.
Sinitic languages began to evolve several thousands of years ago when the early Chinese kingdoms developed in the east. They also devised a form of writing consisting of characters, each representing sounds, which is still in place today.
For native speakers of western languages, Sinitic languages are considered to be difficult to learn due to the presence of tones. Mandarin has five tones, for example, and using the wrong tone can completely change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
Sinitic languages branched out and developed over time, giving regional variations of Chinese that include several major dialects spoken today, of which an estimated 1.3 billion Chinese people speak one as a first language. The primary dialects of the Sinitic or Chinese language groups are:
- Mandarin: The most widespread Chinese dialect, on which Putonghua, the official language in China, is based. Mandarin originated in the north of China where it’s the first language, but it’s now spoken or understood by almost everyone in China, making it useful to start learning this as a teacher.
- Yue: Better known in the western world as Cantonese, Yue is primarily spoken in the south of China, including Hong Kong, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. Some 86 million people speak it as a first language.
- Jin: This language is closely related to Mandarin, and it’s spoken in the far northern provinces of China. With upwards of 60 million speakers, it’s predominantly spoken in Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi province.
- Wue: Spoken by 80 million people in eastern China, the origins of Wue can be traced back 3,000 years. It’s considered to be the oldest of China’s languages, and it’s primarily spoken in Shanghai (where it’s called Shanghainese) and Suzhou (where it’s called Suzhounese).
- Gan: Travel to Jiangxi province and you’ll hear the Gan language being spoken. The language evolved from northern dialects as the Han Chinese moved south, and Gan is spoken by an estimated 48 million people.
- Xiang: Hunan and Guangxi provinces are home to the Xiang language, which developed from Mandarin during the era of the Ming Dynasty several hundred years ago. Xiang has around 36 million native speakers.
- Min: Named after the Min River in Fujian province, Min is spoken by around 30 million people across Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. There are several dialects, of which the most well known is Hokkien.
- Hakka: Spoken in the southern Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, Hakka is the language of the Hakka people. Some 47 million people speak Hakka, although it was once more widespread than it is now, having been replaced in many areas (like Hong Kong) by Cantonese.
Other languages, of which there are hundreds more, are typically classed as ‘minority languages’. Examples of minority languages in China that are widely spoken include:
How Are Languages in China Written?
Languages in China are traditionally transcribed using Chinese characters, which are very different from writing systems like the Roman alphabet.
Chinese characters are complex, and each one represents a different sound or syllable. This means that one or two characters are typically used to represent each word.
There are tens of thousands of characters in use, and you’ll need to learn several thousand to read and write in Chinese languages.
Interestingly though, Chinese characters can be understood by speakers of different dialects and languages. Cantonese characters represent the same words as Mandarin characters, even if they’re spoken differently by a Mandarin speaker compared to a Cantonese one.
The complexity of Chinese characters led the government to establish a form of writing called ‘Simplified Chinese’ which is easier to comprehend. When you’re learning a Chinese language, you’ll also see the characters translated into the Roman alphabet through a system called ‘Pinyin’.
Do I Need to Speak Mandarin to Teach in China?
If you’re interested in teaching professionally in China, then the good news is that you don’t need to speak Mandarin, or any of the other languages in China, to excel in your new job.
Professional placements for foreign teachers are only available at international or bilingual schools, where the students are fluent or proficient in English. You’ll also often be allocated a Chinese-speaking classroom assistant to help you out, particularly in bilingual schools.
Of course, part of the experience of teaching abroad is integrating into the local culture, and you’ll find it incredibly useful and rewarding to start learning Mandarin. Outside of the classroom, speaking the local language will help you in everyday life, whether it’s ordering in a restaurant or making local friends in your new home city!
Are you ready to start your teaching career in China? Contact INTA Education to find out more.
INTA Education was founded by Lydia and Will, teachers with a passion for language and education. With ten years of experience teaching in Asia, we’re ready to help you at every stage of the application process.