What Languages Are Spoken In China?

The Chinese speak over 300 languages, partly due to the numerous ethnic groups. Each language’s vernacular varies, and a word’s meaning depends on its tone. 

There are mainly seven languages spoken in China, with Mandarin being the most prominent. Cantonese, Hunanese, Gan, Hakka, Min, and Shanghainese closely follow. The geographical region defines each language, leading to many emerging sub-dialects.

This article will highlight the three main languages spoken in China. I’ll explain if the Chinese speak English and whether they are teaching it in schools.

The Languages of China

As one of the largest countries in Asia based on population and land mass, there is no surprise that the languages spoken in China are in the hundreds. Notably, the indigenous people do not consider them to be languages but dialects in China. 

In addition to the seven main languages stated above, the Chinese also speak: 

  • Mongolian
  • Haix
  • Bayingolin
  • Bortala
  • Korean
  • Tibetan
  • Uyghur
  • Zhuang
  • Kazakh
  • Yi

Foreign languages such as German, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, and English can be heard throughout China, especially in urban provinces such as Hong Kong. 

What Are the Top 3 Languages Spoken in China?

The top 3 languages spoken in China are Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese. According to leading linguists, Mandarin is the simplest of these, with Cantonese being the closest to the Ancient Chinese language.

Mandarin

Mandarin is the official Chinese language and is also known as:

  • Standard Chinese
  • Northern Chinese
  • Beifang Fangyan
  • Beijinghua
  • Zhongguohua
  • Putonghua

It is spoken primarily in China’s Northern and Southwestern regions. Just over one billion Chinese speak Mandarin, accounting for approximately sixty-six percent of the population. Notably, it is the least complicated of the Chinese languages to learn.

Mandarin native or second language for most Chinese and has four sub-dialects within China’s mainland. Several of the Chinese dialects are spin-offs of Mandarin.

These sub-dialects and the regions they derive from are:

  • Northern Mandarin: spoken in the areas of Northern China, Manchuria, and Beijing.
  • Northwestern Mandarin: heard in Gansu, Shaanxi, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Baoji.
  • Southern Mandarin: found in Hainan, Guangdong, and Nanjing.
  • Southwestern Mandarin: spoken in most of Southwest China, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan.

Mandarin is a tonal language, where different tones can produce different meanings. These are its four basic tones:

  • Neutral
  • Rising
  • Falling
  • High rising 

Some suggest that there is a fifth tone which is high falling.

Cantonese

Compared to the other Chinese languages, Cantonese is the closest to ancient Chinese. It is also referred to as: 

  • Guangdonghua 
  • Yueh 
  • Yue
  • Yuet Yue
  • Yueyu

The dialect is heard predominantly in Hainan, Hunan, Guangdong, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous regions, each with unique slang. 

More than 60 million Chinese communicate using Cantonese, making it the second most spoken language in China. However, those who do speak Cantonese have difficulties understanding other indigenous languages. 

Cantonese has three main sub-dialects. These are: 

  • Hong Kong dialect
  • Guangzhou dialect
  • Macau dialect 

They all use six tones, comprising one falling tone, two rising tones, and three-level tones. 

It is considered one of the most challenging Chinese languages to learn. 

Shanghainese

The popularity of this language rose during the Ming dynasty to over 80 million speakers. However, this number has declined steadily to approximately 14 million, making it China’s third most popular language. It is also known as: 

  • Wúyuèyǔ
  • Wu
  • Changzhou
  • Goetian

Mainly spoken in the municipality of Shanghai, where it got its name, provinces such as Anhui, Fujian, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang also communicate using this variant.  

Fourteen sub-dialects exist for this language. They include: 

  • Oujiang
  • Wuzhou
  • Taizhou
  • Chuqu
  • Xuanzhou
  • Shaoxing
  • Hangzhou
  • Jiaxing
  • Changzhou
  • Suzhou
  • Ningbo
  • Wuxi
  • Huzhou
  • Shanghainese

Eight tones distinguish the meaning of words in Shanghainese, making this another complicated Chinese language to learn.

Is Chinese Difficult To Learn?

Chinese can be a tricky language to master. In fact, it is considered one of the most challenging of all the languages in the world to learn. 

Memorizing words helps individuals learn how sounds are pronounced. However, Chinese uses ideographic characters, meaning there is no consistent link between symbols and sound.

The good news is that Chinese grammar is relatively simple. The main barrier for Westerner learners is memorizing the thousands of characters required for fluency. Pronunciation can also prove to be very difficult.

Does China Speak English?

A small part of China speaks English. It is the primary foreign language spoken in China. Over 10 million of the Chinese population speak English, yet they are not considered fluent. 

Some reports say less than one percent are able to conduct conversations, with the majority only being able to state phrases such as “how are you?”, “thank you,” and “okay.”

However, this is not the case in Hong Kong, where English has been proclaimed an official language. Notably, if you are planning to visit Hong Kong and stay at any tourist-related location, the staff would be more than capable of communicating in English.

Do Schools in China Teach English?

Schools in China teach English. This began in the early 17th century, with a brief pause during the Cultural Revolution and a revival in the early 1970s. English has since become mandatory and is taught to many children as early as kindergarten. 

Typically, every child attending school would receive a lesson in English by the third grade. This teaching continues to high school but does not extend to vocational schools.

Nevertheless, the quality of English taught varies drastically depending on the school’s location. Schools in rural provinces typically do not have access to materials, classrooms, or quality teachers. Even though English is compulsory, in reality, it’s nor properly taught in many rural schools. 

Final Thoughts 

Mandarin is China’s official language and the easiest to learn. However, there are more than 300 other languages spoken across the country. If planning on visiting China, the geographical location will determine the language or dialect of that region. 

Even though English is mandatory in schools, not every Chinese you come across will be able to carry on a conversation in English, especially those living in rural regions. A native translator is a necessity for any prolonged stay.