Languages of China

Languages of China

There are 292 languages spoken today in China, which gives an idea about how diverse the country and its population is. These languages do not even belong to the same family, with some being termed Sino-Tibetan, including Chinese, others being related to Turkish, such as the Altaic family, or even Arabic, as Arabic is the second official language of the Hui people.

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and, as a consequence, spoken by approximately 836 million people in the country. Even within the same language, dialects may significantly differ from province to province, which is why Standard Chinese is usually used as a common denominator between all these dialect speakers. Standard Chinese was led into use by a massive educational reform during the 1930s that aimed exactly at providing a common language platform for all individuals to use in their day to day communication.

Mandarin Chinese is not spoken in Hong Kong and Macao, where the use of Cantonese Chinese is more widespread. About 71 million Chinese speak Cantonese Chinese, also referred to as Yue. Other important categories of Chinese include Wu (spoken in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and in Shanghai) and Xiang, spoken in Hunan.

One of the interesting aspects about Chinese languages (and one of the things that will give you a hard time mastering it) is the different tonalities that accompany the phonology of the language. A straightforward example is the way the simple sound “ma” can be pronounced in four different ways to mean four different things, from mother to horse to scold (and you don’t want to call someone’s mother a horse…), with an additional tonality that could point to a question particle. Always note the tone used, because the word gets a whole new meaning.

In terms of using English in China, one can say that this has become more widespread in the past decades, with English being a compulsory curriculum in Chinese schools. This is combined with the increased openness that China has experienced during this time, including through a greater interest towards Western culture and civilization.
It is never uncommon for a Chinese, especially younger ones, to attempt to speak in English with you when you are in a line or waiting for the bus. Their intention is to exercise their knowledge as much as possible, something which they don’t get a chance to do too often.