If asked “what language is spoken in China?” you’re more than likely going to hear someone respond by simply saying “Chinese” (singular). In reality, China does not merely have one single spoken language — they have several. But, out of this plethora of languages, what are the most popular languages in China?
Of course, most people often consider China’s official language to be either Mandarin or Cantonese, as these are no doubt the two main languages in China. However, in addition to those two, there are several other languages and dialects in China that you’ve likely never even heard of!
How Many Languages Are Spoken in China?
China is a vast, expansive country that’s home to over 1.21 billion people and 56 different ethnics groups. It’s no surprise that such a large and ethnically distinct populace would also be home to such a wide array of languages and dialects.
Contrary to popular belief, there are many languages in China. Just how many different languages are spoken there? About 297!
This is an insane number but it’s by no means the most languages spoken in one country. Surprisingly, China is lead by 6 other countries: Australia, The United States, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.
Many of the languages spoken in China consist of regional dialects and primarily differ from one another in pronunciation and vocabulary. The distinctiveness between the languages is similar in fashion to that of the Romantic languages.
These distinctions, however, are pronounced enough to make it so that two people from two entirely different parts of China might never understand each other. Written language can be quite similar among these languages, but pronunciation and enunciation of certain vowels make it so that the languages are rendered intelligible from one another, especially if you haven’t familiarized yourself with these languages before. At least you can practice writing skills with a Chinese teacher to understand how these languages are similar.
But of all the Chinese languages spoken, which ones are the most popular?
Here’s a brief breakdown of 4 of the most popular. Again, there are about 297 in total, but many of these “languages” are more resemblant of dialects than they are full-blown languages. It’s also worth noting that most of the languages on this list also encompass multiple distinct regional dialects.
What Are The 4 Most Popular Languages in China?
If you want to know what the main language spoken in China is, you’d unquestionably find your answer in the form of Mandarin. With over 73% of China’s population speaking Mandarin, it’s undeniable that this is not only one of the major languages spoken in China, but rather the MAJOR language spoken in China.
Mandarin has served as the national lingua franca dating all the way back to the 14th century and it is also the official language of the People’s Republic of China. Since it had originated in the North of China, Mandarin and surrounding dialects are readily referred to as the Northern Dialects.
Mandarin is often referred to as Standard Chinese due to its prominence. Most of the Chinese diaspora worldwide also speak Mandarin and it’s also the most frequently taught of all the Chinese languages.
Mandarin is widespread, no doubt, but there are still around 400 million Chinese people who don’t speak Mandarin. In fact, the Chinese government has even instituted a plan to force it’s non-mandarin speaking citizens to learn — this is slated to mostly affect China’s second most popular language: Cantonese.
It’s estimated that around 60 million people in China speak Cantonese. The language is most prominently spoken in Southeastern China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Cantonese is the prestige variety of the Yue language, despite this, it is often used as an umbrella term to encompass the entire Yue subgroup of languages.
In addition to being the lingua franca of China’s Guangdong province, Cantonese is also extremely widespread among the Chinese diaspora in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and much of the Western world.
3. Wu (Shanghainese)
The Wu language is most prominently spoken in Shanghai, Southeastern Jiangsu province, and Zhejiang province. Its native speakers comprise about 8% of China’s entire populace —this is still a staggeringly high number of about 85 million people.
The language gained significant traction during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when Shanghai transformed itself into a major metropolitan city.
To make matters even more complicated, Wu not only differs drastically from Standard Chinese but even from the several variations that exist within its very own subgroup of languages. Many of the different dialects of Wu are virtually unintelligible from one another!
4. Min Chinese
Min Chinese is a large swath of Sinitic languages spoken by about 115 million people throughout China. These languages are most prominently spoken in Fujian province, Leizhou peninsula and Hainan, Chaoshan, Zhongshan, Southern Wenzhou, Zhoushan archipelago, and Taiwan. The most widely spoken variety of the Min language outside of Fuijan is Min Nan (or Hokkien-Taiwanese) with over 50 million native speakers.
Min Chinese varies dramatically from region to region with distinctive coastal and inland variations. There is immense diversity even within the coastal and inland subgroups of the Min language, making Min Chinese one of the most diverse languages in China.
So, what languages do they speak in China? Well, several languages! Far too many languages to cover in this article, to be completely frank.
Of course, from a layman’s perspective, Mandarin and Cantonese are really the only two one should know about to have their bases covered. These two are unquestionably the most prominent and well-known of all the Chinese languages.
That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t several other popular languages spoken within China’s expansive borders.
As you can clearly see from this list, some of the most popular languages in China are likely languages you’ve never even heard of before. Nonetheless, these lesser-known Chinese languages have hundreds of millions of speakers throughout the country — it just goes to show how distinct and diverse the population of China truly is!