China’s Linguistic Diversity

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The linguistic situation in China is very complex. There are literally hundreds of different Chinese dialects spoken across China. Linguists have long debated what we call these linguistic variations, dialects or languages. In the West, we typically use this definition for dialects—

mutually intelligible varieties of the same language

This definition works nicely for most Western languages. For example, British English and American English are largely mutually intelligible. But this definition doesn’t work for China because many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible. And using the term languages as in different languages doesn’t work that well either because there is a standard written form, and there is cultural unity that usually does not exist across languages, such as Spanish and English in the United States. The Chinese term is 方言 fāngyán literally meaning “region language” or as one linguist called them “regionalects.” That English term didn’t really take. Those who argue for calling them different languages (i.e. Mandarin and Cantonese) use the intelligibility test. Those who argue for using the term dialect fall back on the cultural unity and literacy issue. We often use the term dialect simply because it is convenient, even if it doesn’t completely align with the Western definition of the term. I’ll use dialect in this post to refer to the different varieties of Chinese. In China there are 7 main dialect groups. They are:

Dialect                    % of speakers                    Region spoken

Mandarin                   71.5%                                  Northern & Southwestern China

Wu                             8.5%                                    Shanghai, central coastal areas

Gan                            2.4%                                    Jiangxi Province

Xiang                         4.8%                                    Hunan Province

Kejia (Hakka)           3.7%                                   Scattered throughout the South and Taiwan

Yue (Cantonese)      5.0%                                    Guangdong, Hong Kong, overseas

Min                           4.1%                                     Fujian, SE coastal areas, Taiwan

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Mandarin dialects are the most widely spoken by a large margin. But what makes the linguistic situation more complicated is that there are sub-dialects within these groups that are not mutually intelligible. When I was in graduate school taking a seminar in Chinese sociolinguistics, we listened to tapes of speakers of a Mandarin dialect just 150 km north of Beijing, and we could understand very little. There are Cantonese dialects that vary from village to village, some so much so that they are not comprehensible to each other. One more thing to keep in mind. Perhaps you’re thinking, “well only 5% of the population speak Cantonese.” Do the math. 5% of 1.3 billion is a staggering amount. In fact, there are as many Cantonese speakers in Southern China as French speakers in France. To help my students understand what I’m talking about I like to play them some audio samples of people speaking different Chinese dialects. In each of the audio files below, the speaker will say the following, at least how they would say the same thing in their dialect.

1. Shéi a? Wǒ shì Lǎo Sān

(Who is it? I’m Lao San)

2. Lǎo Sì ne? Tā Zhèng gēn yígè péngyǒu shuō zhe huà ne.

(What about Lao Si? He’s talking with a friend right now).

3. Tā hái méi shuō wán ma?

(Has he finished speaking?)

4. Hái méi ne. Dàyuè zài yǒu yì huǎr jiù shuō wán le.

(Not yet. (He’ll) probably be done talking in a moment).

1. Běijīng Dialect (Northern Mandarin)

2. Xī’ān Dialect (Central Mandarin Sub-group; Shaanxi Province)

3. Hángzhōu Dialect (Wu Group; Zhejiang Province)

4. Chángshā Dialect (Xiang Group; Hunan Province)

5. Méixiàn Dialect (Hakka Group; Guangdong Province)

6. Cantonese—guǎngdōnghuà (Yue Group; Guangdong Province)

A final note: In China there are 55 Nationally recognized minority groups that speak non-Chinese languages. These groups include, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uigurs, Kazaks, Miao (Hmong), Zhuang, Yi, Bai, Koreans, and many others. In most cases their languages are not even linguistically related to Chinese. These ethnic minority groups make about 7% of China’s population.

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16 thoughts on “China’s Linguistic Diversity

  1. As an American, the sheer number of unintelligible dialects in China is kind of isolating to see. I’ve also heard that city dialects can differ vastly from regular national spoken Mandarin to the point that they are unintelligible from a standard point of view.

  2. Hearing the differences in dialects is amazing and disconcerting at the same time! Learning Mandarin, one of the hardest things I struggle with is understanding and hearing different tones, so when the pronunciation varies so drastically it makes me realize how much I still have to learn!

  3. Thanks for this concise explanation of a confusing topic (at least for a westerner). It is very helpful for trying to understand the Chinese language(s) debate and clarifying the usage of fangyan other than Mandarin.

  4. I have many Chinese friends and what I realized was that each of them is able to speak at least two different Chinese languages!! It is very interesting to learn how each of the languages has developed.

  5. Listening to the different dialects really helped me understand just how different each is from the others. I am studying Mandarin Chinese right now and it is crazy to think that I will not be able to communicate with about 30% of Chines without having to learn different pronunciation and words!

  6. All I say here is that’s crazy! it’s crazy that how it structured and what’s the history behind it. Interested in learning more about it.

  7. after studying mandarin and having Cantonese as a first language the difference is definitely noticeable. I would love to see much different the other dialects are!

  8. Learning Mandarin myself and having friends who speak Cantonese, I have in the past been made aware of the apparent differences between the two dialects. I would be very interested to see just how different the others are as well. I find it interesting that with the high number of minority groups they only make up a combined total of 7% of the overall population.

  9. I was aware that there were different dialects all around China, however I had no idea how different they all sound from one another! It is fascinating that all of the dialects are cannot be understood by a native speaker of one language. That is different than Americans being able to understand English from The United Kingdom. It was also an interesting point that 5% of the population of China being able to speak the Cantonese dialect is still hundreds of thousands of people.

  10. Wow, i had no idea about the different dialects in China. That must make unity throughout the country really hard, but it is still so unique that a country can hold so many people who speak so differently. At first when I read that five percent of chinas population spoke Cantonese, it kind of went over my head how many people actually speak Cantonese, considering Chinas population is like 1.3 billion people. A lot of people speak cantonese.

  11. China’s linguistic situation has always fascinated me because of the vast amount of dialects and individual languages that exist. It’s very interesting that the debate of what to call the different dialects (as dialects or actual separate languages) has been this long lasting. As English was my first language, I can only relate to there being one language in my home country. Despite this, I find it the different nuances and languages very fascinating.

  12. Wow! I can’t believe how much the dialects vary. I really can’t understand anything that isn’t the Beijing dialect. It is a little intimidating to think how difficult it might be to understand some people in China if I were to visit, especially because I am already worried I will struggle to communicate well with those that speak more standard Mandarin. I guess I need to practice more!

  13. It is so interesting to me how different the dialects in China are from one another. I speak Spanish, which is widely intelligible from country to country. The fact that many Chinese dialects aren’t, despite being from relatively close areas is fascinating to me. I imagine it makes communication very difficult, which is why it is worth having one unified, national language. However, I think it is still important to preserve the different dialects that are around today, and the heritage that comes with them.

  14. I found the situation quite similar while living in Switzerland. Yes, the country is divided into its French, German, and Italian speaking regions, but there are also dialects that exist within those regions. Someone who speaks Swiss German in central Switzerland may not understand someone who speaks Swiss German 30 minutes north. This makes me wonder how national broadcasts are streamlined and understood by the many different dialects.

  15. It is interesting that although the dialects may change between areas, the characters remain thew same. As someone who has taken Chinese before, it is cool to know I can also read Cantonese, although I can’t speak it. It shows that even though there are many more dialects in addition, they will all write the same for better understanding.

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