Languages of China
|Part of a series on the|
|Neolithic c. 8500 – c. 2070 BCE|
|Xia c. 2070 – c. 1600 BCE|
|Shang c. 1600 – c. 1046 BCE|
|Zhou c. 1046 – 256 BCE|
|Spring and Autumn|
|Qin 221–207 BCE|
|Han 202 BCE – 220 CE|
|Three Kingdoms 220–280|
|Wei, Shu and Wu|
|Eastern Jin||Sixteen Kingdoms|
|Northern and Southern dynasties|
|Five Dynasties and
|Northern Song||Western Xia|
|Southern Song||Jin||Western Liao|
|Republic of China on the mainland 1912–1949|
|People's Republic of China 1949–present|
|Republic of China in Taiwan 1949–present|
There are several hundred languages in China. The predominant language is Standard Chinese, which is based on central Mandarin, but there are hundreds of related Chinese languages, collectively known as Hanyu (simplified Chinese: 汉语; traditional Chinese: 漢語; pinyin: Hànyǔ, 'Han language'), that are spoken by 92% of the population. The Chinese (or 'Sinitic') languages are typically divided into seven major language groups, and their study is a distinct academic discipline. They differ as much from each other morphologically and phonetically as do English, German and Danish, but meanwhile share the same writing system (Hanzi) and are mutually intelligible in written form. There are in addition approximately 300 minority languages spoken by the remaining 8% of the population of China. The ones with greatest state support are Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang.
According to the 2010 edition of the Nationalencyklopedin, 955 million out of China's then-population of 1.34 billion spoke some variety of Mandarin Chinese as their first language, accounting for 71% of the country's population. According to the 2019 edition of Ethnologue, 904,000,000 people in China spoke some variety of Mandarin as their first language in 2017.
Standard Chinese, known in China as Putonghua, based on the Mandarin dialect of Beijing, is the official national spoken language for the mainland and serves as a lingua franca within the Mandarin-speaking regions (and, to a lesser extent, across the other regions of mainland China). Several other autonomous regions have additional official languages. For example, Tibetan has official status within the Tibet Autonomous Region and Mongolian has official status within Inner Mongolia. Language laws of China do not apply to either Hong Kong or Macau, which have different official languages (Cantonese, English and Portuguese) from the mainland.
The spoken languages of nationalities that are a part of the People's Republic of China belong to at least nine families:
- The Sino-Tibetan family: 19 official ethnicities (including the Han and Tibetans)
- The Tai–Kadai family: several languages spoken by the Zhuang, the Bouyei, the Dai, the Dong, and the Hlai (Li people). 9 official ethnicities.
- The Hmong–Mien family: 3 official ethnicities
- The Austroasiatic family: 4 official ethnicities (the De'ang, Blang, Gin (Vietnamese), and Wa)
- The Turkic family: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Salars, etc. 7 official ethnicities.
- The Mongolic family: Mongols, Dongxiang, and related groups. 6 official ethnicities.
- The Tungusic family: Manchus (formerly), Hezhe, etc. 5 official ethnicities.
- The Koreanic family: Korean language
- The Indo-European family: 2 official ethnicities (the Russians and Tajiks (actually Pamiri people). There is also a heavily Persian-influenced Äynu language spoken by the Äynu people in southwestern Xinjiang who are officially considered Uyghurs.
- The Austronesian family: 1 official ethnicity (the Gaoshan, who speak many languages of the Formosan branch), 1 unofficial (the Utsuls, who speak the Tsat language but are considered Hui.)
Below are lists of ethnic groups in China by linguistic classification. Ethnicities not on the official PRC list of 56 ethnic groups are italicized. Respective Pinyin transliterations and Chinese characters (both simplified and traditional) are also given.
- Chinese, 汉语, 漢語
- Mandarin Chinese, 官话, 官話
- Jin Chinese, 晋语, 晉語
- Wu Chinese, 吴语, 吳語
- Shanghainese, 上海话, 上海話
- Huizhou Chinese, 徽语, 徽語
- Yue Chinese, 粤语, 粤語
- Cantonese, 广东话, 廣東話
- Ping Chinese, 平话, 平話
- Gan Chinese, 赣语, 贛語
- Xiang Chinese, 湘语, 湘語
- Hakka language, 客家话, 客家話
- Min Chinese, 闽语, 閩語
- Chinese, 汉语, 漢語
(Possibly the ancient Bǎiyuè 百越)
- Old Turkic (extinct)
- Tuoba (extinct)
(Possibly the ancient Nánmán 南蛮, 南蠻)
- Tocharian (extinct)
- Saka (extinct)
- Pamiri, (mislabelled as "Tajik")
- Portuguese (spoken in Macau)
- English (spoken in Hong Kong)
- Jie (Kjet) (extinct) (?)
- Ruan-ruan (Rouran) (extinct)
The following languages traditionally had written forms that do not involve Chinese characters (hanzi):
- The Dai – Tai Lü language or Tai Nüa language – Tai Lü alphabet or Tai Nüa alphabet
- The Kazakhs – Kazakh language – Kazakh Arabic alphabet
- The Koreans – Korean language – Chosŏn'gŭl alphabet
- The Kyrgyz – Kyrgyz language – Kyrgyz Arabic alphabet
- The Manchus – Manchu language – Manchu alphabet
- The Mongols – Mongolian language – Mongolian alphabet
- The Naxi – Naxi language – Dongba characters
- The Sui – Sui language – Sui script
- The Tibetans – Tibetan language – Tibetan alphabet
- The Uyghurs – Uyghur language – Uyghur Arabic alphabet
- The Xibe – Xibe language – Manchu alphabet
- The Yi – Yi language – Yi syllabary
Many modern forms of spoken Chinese languages have their own distinct writing system using Chinese characters that contain colloquial variants. These typically are used as sound characters to help determine the pronunciation of the sentence within that language:
Some non-Sinitic peoples have historically used Chinese characters:
Other languages, all now extinct, used separate logographic scripts influenced by, but not directly derived from, Chinese characters:
- The Jurchens (Manchu ancestors) – Jurchen language – Jurchen script
- The Khitans (Mongolic people) – Khitan language – Khitan large and small scripts
- The Tanguts (Sino-Tibetan people) – Tangut language – Tangut script
During Qing dynasty, palaces, temples, and coins have sometimes been inscribed in five scripts:
During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the official writing system was:
Chinese banknotes contain several scripts in addition to Chinese script. These are:
Other writing system for Chinese languages in China include:
Ten nationalities who never had a written system have, under the PRC's encouragement, developed phonetic alphabets. According to a government white paper published in early 2005, "by the end of 2003, 22 ethnic minorities in China used 28 written languages."
Mandarin has been promoted as the commonly spoken language since 1956, based phonologically on the dialect of Beijing. North Chinese language group is set up as the standard grammatically and lexically. Meanwhile, Mao Tse-Tung and Lu-Hsün writings are used as the basis of the stylistic standard. Pronunciation is taught with the use of the romanized phonetic system known as pinyin. Pinyin has been criticized for fear of an eventual replacement of the traditional character orthography.
The Chinese language policy in mainland China is heavily influenced by the Soviet nationalities policy and officially encourages the development of standard spoken and written languages for each of the nationalities of China. Language is one of the features used for ethnic identification. In September 1951, the All-China Minorities Education Conference established that all minorities should be taught in their language at the primary and secondary levels when they count with a writing language. Those without a writing language or with an "imperfect" writing language should be helped to develop and reform their writing languages.
However, in this schema, Han Chinese are considered a single nationality and the official policy of the People's Republic of China (PRC) treats the different varieties of Chinese differently from the different national languages, even though their differences are as significant, if not more so, as those between the various Romance languages of Europe. While official policies in mainland China encourage the development and use of different orthographies for the national languages and their use in educational and academic settings, realistically speaking it would seem that, as elsewhere in the world, the outlook for minority languages perceived as inferior is grim. The Tibetan Government-in-Exile argue that social pressures and political efforts result in a policy of sinicization and feels that Beijing should promote the Tibetan language more. Because many languages exist in China, they also have problems regarding diglossia. Recently, in terms of Fishman's typology of the relationships between bilingualism and diglossia and his taxonomy of diglossia (Fishman 1978, 1980) in China: more and more minority communities have been evolving from "diglossia without bilingualism" to "bilingualism without diglossia." This could be an implication of mainland China's power expanding.
In 2010, Tibetan students protested against changes in the Language Policy on the schools that promoted the use of Mandarin Chinese instead of Tibetan. They argued that the measure would erode their culture. In 2013, China's Education Ministry said that about 400 million people were unable to speak the national language Mandarin. In that year, the government pushed linguistic unity in China, focusing on the countryside and areas with ethnic minorities.
Mandarin Chinese is the prestige language in practice, and failure to protect ethnic languages does occur. In summer 2020, the Inner Mongolian government announced an education policy change to phase out Mongolian as the language of instructions for humanities in elementary and middle schools, adopting the national instruction material instead. Thousands of ethnic Mongolians in northern China gathered to protested the policy. The Ministry of Education describes the move as a natural extension of the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Chinese: 通用语言文字法) of 2000.
Study of foreign languages
English has been the most widely-taught foreign language in China, as it is a required subject for students attending university. Other languages that have gained some degree of prevalence or interest are Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. During the 1950s and 1960s, Russian had some social status among elites in mainland China as the international language of socialism.
In the late 1960s, English replaced the position of Russian to become the most studied foreign language in China. After the Reform and Opening-up policy in 1988, English was taught in public schools starting in the third year of primary school.
Russian, French, and German language classes have been made widely available in universities and colleges. In Northeast China, there are many bilingual schools (Mandarin-Japanese; Mandarin-Korean; Mandarin-Russian), in these schools, students learn languages other than English.
The Economist, issue April 12, 2006, reported that up to one fifth of the population was learning English. Gordon Brown, the former British Prime Minister, estimated that the total English-speaking population in China would outnumber the native speakers in the rest of the world in two decades.
There have been a growing number of students studying Arabic, due to reasons of cultural interest and belief in better job opportunities. The language is also widely studied amongst the Hui people. In the past, literary Arabic education was promoted in Islamic schools by the Kuomintang when it ruled mainland China.
There have also been a growing number of students choosing to learn Urdu, due to interest in Pakistani culture, close ties between the respective nations, and job opportunities provided by the CPEC.
Interest in Portuguese and Spanish have increased greatly, due in part to Chinese investment in Latin America as well as in African nations such as Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Portuguese is also one of the official languages in Macau, although its use had stagnated since the nation's transfer from Portugal to the PRC. It was estimated in 2016 that 2.3% of Macau's locals spoke the language, although with government backing since then, interest in it has increased.
Use of English
In China, English is used as a lingua franca in several fields, especially for business settings, and in schools to teach Standard Mandarin to people who are not Chinese citizens. English is also one of the official languages in Hong Kong.
- Language Atlas of China
- Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects
- Varieties of Chinese
- List of varieties of Chinese
- Han Chinese subgroups
- Demographics of China
- Racism in China
- Hong Kong English
- Languages of Hong Kong
- Culture of Macau
- Macanese Portuguese
- List of ethnic groups in China
- Classification of Southeast Asian languages
- Standard Chinese
- This article incorporates text from Encyclopædia of religion and ethics, Volume 8, by James Hastings, John Alexander Selbie, Louis Herbert Gray, a publication from 1916, now in the public domain in the United States.
- This article incorporates text from Burma past and present, by Albert Fytche, a publication from 1878, now in the public domain in the United States.
- "English Craze Hits Chinese Language Standards - YaleGlobal Online". yaleglobal.yale.edu. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
- "Asians Offer Region a Lesson – in English". Archived from the original on 2010-02-19. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
- "Faguowenhua". Faguowenhua.com. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
- "RI ranks No. 2 in learning Japanese language". The Jakarta Post. Retrieved 27 July 2018.
- Dwyer, Arienne (2005). The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse (PDF). Political Studies 15. Washington: East-West Center. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-1-932728-29-3.
Tertiary institutions with instruction in the languages and literatures of the regional minorities (e.g., Xinjiang University) have faculties entitled Hanyu xi ("Languages of China Department") and Hanyu wenxue xi ("Literatures of the Languages of China Department").
- Languages of China – from Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. "The number of individual languages listed for China is 299. "
- Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin. Asterisks mark the 2010 estimates for the top dozen languages.
- China: Languages. In: Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2019. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-second edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
- Barnes, Dayle (1978). "The Language of Instruction in Chinese Communities". International Review of Education. 24 (3): 371–374. ISSN 0020-8566.
- Western Yugur is a Turkic language, whereas is Eastern Yugur a Mongolic language.
- Dreyer, June Teufel (1978). "Language Planning for China's Ethnic Minorities". Pacific Affairs. 51 (3): 369–383. doi:10.2307/2757936. ISSN 0030-851X.
- The prospects for the long-term survival of Non-Han minority languages in the south of China Archived 2008-08-21 at the Wayback Machine
- Minglang Zhou, Multilingualism in China the politics of Writing reforms for minority languages 1949-2002 (2003)
- "Tibetans protest against language curbs in Chinese schools". the Guardian. 2010-10-20. Retrieved 2021-01-15.
- "Beijing says 400 million Chinese cannot speak Mandarin". BBC News. 2013-09-06. Retrieved 2021-01-15.
- Qin, Amy. "Curbs on Mongolian Language Teaching Prompt Large Protests in China". NYTIMES. Archived from the original on 18 September 2020. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
- "内蒙古教改风波争议延烧 中国教育部：不同看法是暂时的". Duowei News.
- 宋薇. "Retooling English learning in China - USA - Chinadaily.com.cn". usa.chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
- "What Languages Are Spoken in China?". WorldAtlas. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
- Phillips, Tom (2018-09-02). "Study of Portuguese and Spanish explodes as China expands role in Latin America". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "Increasing number of middle schools offer Russian language courses - China - Chinadaily.com.cn". www.chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "Top 6 Most Popular Foreign Language Teachers in China". top.at0086.com. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "German language study on the rise worldwide". ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment. 2015-04-30. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "English beginning to be spoken here". The Economist. 2006-04-12.
- "More Chinese Students Study Arabic". www.academiccourses.com. 2017-12-18. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- Michael Dillon (1999), China's Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects, Richmond: Curzon Press, p. 155, ISBN 978-0-7007-1026-3, retrieved 2010-06-28
- Stéphane A. Dudoignon; Hisao Komatsu; Yasushi Kosugi (2006). Intellectuals in the modern Islamic world: transmission, transformation, communication. Taylor & Francis. p. 251. ISBN 978-0-415-36835-3. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- APP (2017-06-11). "Chinese students eager to learn Urdu anticipating job opportunities under CPEC". DAWN.COM. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- Keegan, Matthew. "Why Does Macau Speak Portuguese?". Culture Trip. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- "Macau Population 2019".
- "In Macau, the old colonial tongue is back in vogue". The Economist. 2018-11-08. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2019-06-23.
- Wang, Wenpu and Lin Wei (Chengdu Technological University). "Chinese English in as lingua franca in global business setting: A case study of on going emails of a foreign company in China." ICITCE 2015. SHS Web of Conferences 25, 01013 (2016). doi: 10.1051/shsconf/20162501013.
- Wang, Danping. "The Use of English as a Lingua Franca in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language: A Case Study of Native Chinese Teachers in Beijing." Language Alternation, Language Choice and Language Encounter in International Tertiary Education, Springer, 2013. pp 161-177. Print ISBN 978-94-007-6475-0. Online ISBN 978-94-007-6476-7. DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-6476-7_8. Published online on 23 May 2013.
- Kane, D. (2006). The Chinese language: its history and current usage. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle. ISBN 0-8048-3853-4
- Halliday, M. A. K., & Webster, J. (2005). Studies in Chinese language. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-5874-2
- Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China (illustrated, reprint ed.). N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691014685. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
- Hong, B. (1978). Chinese language use. Canberra: Contemporary China Centre, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. ISBN 0-909596-29-8
- Cheng, C. C., & Lehmann, W. P. (1975). Language & linguistics in the People's Republic of China. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-74615-6