Chinese is a family of closely-related but mutually unintelligible languages. These languages are known variously as fāngyán (regional languages), dialects of Chinese or varieties of Chinese. In all around 1.2 billion people speak one or more varieties of Chinese.
All varieties of Chinese belong to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages and each one has its own dialects and sub-dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.
- All varieties of Chinese are tonal. This means that each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has between 6 and 9, and Taiwanese has 7 tones.
- The major varieties of Chinese are not mutually intelligible, but most people in China and Taiwan who don’t speak Mandarin as their first language, can speak or at least understand it a bit. However in Hong Kong and Macau fewer people speak Mandarin, so they tend to use English to communicate with people from other parts of China or Taiwan.
- Each of the major varieties of Chinese has numerous dialects. For example, Mandarin can be divided into northern, southern and south-western dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.
Major varieties of Chinese include:
Mandarin is spoken by possibly more people than any other language: just over 1 billion. It is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages in Singapore.
Wú is spoken in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and in Shanghai and Hong Kong by about 80 million people. Major dialects of Wu include Shanghainese and Suzhou.
Cantonese is spoken by about 72 million people in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and Hainan island in China, and also in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and many other countries.
Mǐn Nán (Southern Min)
Mǐn Nán is spoken in the south of Fujian province, Guangdong province, southern Hainan Island, in the south of Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces, and also in Taiwan, Singapore and many other countries. There are about 48 million speakers.
Jinyu is spoken mainly in Shanxi province and also in Shanxi and Henan provinces by about 46 million people. It used to be considered as a dialect of Mandarin, but is now thought to be a separate variety of Chinese.
Hakka is spoken in south eastern China, parts of Taiwan and in the New Territories of Hong Kong. There are also significant communities of Hakka speakers in such countries as the USA, French Guiana, Mauritius and the UK. The total number of Hakka speakers is about 47 million.
Xiang (Hunanese) is spoken by about 36 million people in China, mainly in Hunan province, and also in Sichuan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.
Gan is spoken by about 21 million people in Jiangxi province and in parts of Hubei, Anhui, Hunan and Fujian provinces.
Mín Běi (Northern Min)
Mín Běi has about 10.9 million speakers mainly in Northern Fujian Province and Singapore. Mín is the Classical Chinese name for Fujian province and Běi means ‘north’ or ‘northern’.
Mín Dōng (Eastern Min)
Mín Dōng is spoken mainly in east central Fujian Province and also in Brunei, Indonesia (Java and Bali), Malaysia (Peninsular), Singapore, Thailand. The approximate number of native speakers is 9 million.
Mín Zhōng (Central Min)
Mín Zhōng is spoken mainly in central Fujian Province by about 3.1 million people.
Dungan (хуэйзў йүян)
Dungan is spoken by the Muslim Hui people in China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. There are approximately 108,000 speakers. Dungan is the only variety of Chinese not with Chinese characters. Instead it is written with the Cyrillic alphabet.
Pǔ-Xián is spoken by about 2.5 million people mainly in east central Fujian Province, and and also in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the USA.
Huīzhōu is spoken in southern Anhui and northern Zhejiang provinces by about 4.6 million people. It was considered as a dialect of Mandarin, but is now thought to be a separate variety of Chinese.