Anyone visiting China for the first time will find it very hard to make sense of not just what the locals are saying, but even more importantly, being able to differentiate different Chinese accents and dialects.
Now, if you are planning to learn Chinese as a second or third language because you plan on traveling to China, it would be helpful for you to know what the main language spoken in China is. And with April 20th being Chinese Language Day, it’s important to understand some basics of Chinese culture. This celebration is also called the Celebration of Guyu, a celebration that honors Cangjie, the mythical figure believed to have come up with the Chinese characters during the reign of the Yellow Emperor – this was about 5,000 years ago.
So, what’s the main language spoken in China?
The primary language spoken in China is Mandarin or Chinese Mandarin. Mandarin is the most spoken language in China, and it boasts at least 1.5 billion speakers. This is because Mandarin was named the Chinese national language, and Standard Mandarin is today spoken in mainland Taiwan and Mainland China, with one in 4 people in Singapore speaking Mandarin.
Now, while Mandarin is the language that is spoken predominantly in China, there are 8 other primary dialects also spoken in mainland China. Notably, these dialects are all mutually unintelligible. The primary reason for these differences has to do with the fact that China is one of the largest nations in the world, and it’s also a very old country. And with many of these regions occupying vast terrains separated by largely impassable topographical features like large mountain ranges, people from these regions wouldn’t interact with each other easily, leading to variations not just in the main languages spoken but also the dialects. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Chinese people from these geographical locations don’t really understand each other, even when they speak one regional dialect. However, they often share the same written language, which might be a relief for some. The other difference to be aware of is the fact that there are different pronunciations for different characters, which further results in variations within a language.
So, besides differences in the languages and dialects spoken in mainland China, there also are notable differences in languages spoken in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan, for example, Mandarin is the primary spoken language, but the primary language spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese.
There is also the fact that there are two main versions of Chinese spoken in China – the traditional and Simplified Chinese.
Simplified Chinese – as the name suggests, this is a simpler version of Chinese. This version of Chinese was largely promoted early in the 1950s where it was used as a part of the Communist reforms that were happening in mainland China. Simplified Chinese was developed and adopted as a way of promoting literacy among the country’s large population.
Traditional Chinese – this, on the other hand, is considered the pre-reform version of Chinese writing.
So, what are the other differences between these varieties of Chinese?
Well, the primary differences between the two forms of Chinese include the fact that simplified Chinese featured the use of reduced strokes, which means that there were fewer strokes needed to write characters.
Also, there was an overall reduction in the number of characters used in the simplified version of Chinese, and finally, the selection of characters was filtered meaning unlike in traditional Chinese where many characters would be used to mean the same thing or idea, simplified Chinese was characterized with the use of what was considered the ‘correct’ selection of characters.
What stands out from the simplification of traditional Chinese is the fact that the simplifications of the 1950s were only one part of a longer, more complicated process that had kicked off late in the 19th century – this process is still ongoing as regular updates are made to the standardized characters. The most recent update to the standard Chinese characters was done in 2013.
Even then, there still are many versions of written Chinese used in different parts of China.
Where is Simplified Chinese Used today?
Mainland China, Malaysia, and Overseas – in these parts, a simplified version of Mandarin is used as the primary language, both as written and spoken versions of the language. In mainland China, for example, simplified Chinese is the official script permitted. As a result, the phrasing and vocabulary used in China are Mandarin.
Singapore– the primary language used in Singapore is also Simplified Chinese. However, the use of the written version of Chinese is more common in Singapore, as it is in Mainland China. Over the years, there has been a great evolution in the language used, and the simplified Chinese spoken in Singapore is not the same as that in Mainland as there are significant variations in style and vocabulary used. So, while translations targeted to Mainland China may be understood in Singapore, they haven’t been developed with the natives in mind.
Where is traditional Chinese used?
The Taiwanese speak a great deal of traditional Mandarin primarily because the communist reforms of the 1950s didn’t affect Taiwan. Therefore, Taiwan was left with the traditional Mandarin written script as its primary language. What this means is that the native Taiwanese readers would be accustomed to the vocabulary and the phrasing used by readers in Mainland China even when they speak in the traditional Taiwanese dialect that is in Mandarin.
Besides the use of traditional Mandarin in Taiwan, Traditional Chinese is also spoken in Macao, Hong Kong, and Overseas. These parts of China speak Traditional Cantonese. The reason for this is that Hong Kong was under British rule then, and Cantonese remained its official written and spoken dialect.
These are just some of the differences in languages spoken in China. Now, while the languages spoken have evolved a great deal, it’s worth noting that the main reasons for the large diversity in the languages spoken in China have to do with the great historical divergence experienced in China, as well as the great influence of Latin on not just European Languages, but also on Chinese. The Greater China has its own unique version of Chinese called Classical Chinese – this was a form of old Chinese, and it’s also the version of Chinese that most of the classical Chinese works of literature are in.
That said, the common languages spoken in most parts of China include Mandarin, Standard Chinese or the Modern Standard Mandarin, Gan, Hakka, Min, Wu, Yue or Cantonese, and Xiang.