China: A Nation of Many Languages

China is an extremely diverse nation. It is home to more than 56 recognized ethnic groups and hundreds of different types of languages to accompany them. Most linguists agree that seven broad Chinese language groups exist and, within those, many more dialects are spoken. The seven broad classifications are: Putonghua (Mandarin), Gan, Kejia (Hakka), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantonese). Beyond these seven groups, other non-Chinese languages, such as Tibetan and Mongolian, are also spoken in China. However, about 90% of the total population speak a Chinese dialect from one of the seven groups listed above.

Standard Mandarin has been the official language of China since 1913. The word Mandarin is also often used to refer to one of the many dialects of Mandarin that exist regionally. Much like English in the United States, speakers of Mandarin dialects can almost always understand one another, even despite regional differences in accent or vocabulary. On the other hand, it may be difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand the other seven groups. For instance, it would be impossible for a Mandarin speaker from Helongjiang Province, in the north, to understand someone speaking Cantonese in Guangdong Province in the south.

The differences between these dialects can be both small and large. Sometimes, speakers can understand one another, only hearing a slight regional accent. Other times, the accent and style of speaking might be so different that the two people can scarcely understand one another at all! There is as much language variation within China itself as there is within the entire English-speaking world. Just imagine a barman from the Scottish Highlands trying to communicate with a rancher from West Texas!

Chinese languages are tonal, so there are also differences in the tones and pronunciation of the dialects. For instance, Standard Mandarin only has four main tones, while Cantonese has nine tones. Since the tones affect the meaning of the words, understanding between Cantonese and Mandarin speakers is very unusual.

The many Chinese languages do share one thing in common: Chinese characters. The character system is used for all languages across China and throughout most of the world. So, the same Mandarin speaker from Helongjiang Province could still read and understand the Cantonese language on signs in Guangdong Province.

There are two exceptions to this: Taiwan and Hong Kong. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the government instituted a new policy of character simplification to make writing easier and increase literacy. However, neither Hong Kong nor Taiwan were subject to this change; therefore, the old traditional characters are still used in those places today. Most Mainland Chinese people under the age of 40 can no longer read or write the traditional characters, which were much more complex and intricate than the newer simplified ones.


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