The highly diverse linguistic landscape found in China is owed to the fact that China is home to 56 ethnic groups, all of which have played important roles in developing the various linguistic varieties spoken in China today. Linguists believe that China is home to 297 living languages, which are found all over mainland China, Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.

With over 1.5 billion speakers, Chinese is the most-spoken language not only in China, but in the entire world. But Mandarin is far from the only variation of the Chinese language, or the only language spoken in China. There are eight primary spoken dialects and hundreds of less common ones within mainland China, which, in general, are mutually unintelligible. These include: Mandarin, Standard Chinese, Gan, Hakka (Kejia), Min, Wu, Xiang and Yue (Cantonese).

While many Chinese people in different geographical areas of the country may not understand each other, they may share the same written language, even if the different characters or pronunciation within the language may vary. This is because, despite the vast number of different languages and dialects, there are only two scripts used to write the Chinese language: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.

Simplified Chinese is the ‘modern’ version of Chinese. It was widely promoted in the early 1950s as part of a Communist reforms system in mainland China, designed with the purpose of improving literacy among the population. It is mainly used in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore, where people speak Simplified Mandarin. Traditional Chinese is the pre-reform system of Chinese writing. Traditional Chinese mainly used in Taiwan, where people speak Traditional Mandarin, and Hong Kong and Macao, where people mainly speak Traditional Cantonese.

The Significance of Mandarin and Cantonese: China’s Two Most Prominent Languages

The two most well-known and most-spoken variants of Chinese are Mandarin and Cantonese. As they are mutually unintelligible, they cannot be considered dialects but actual languages. The differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are significant in both their written and spoken forms, including: number of tones, initial consonants and vowel length. In terms of representation around the world, Cantonese has around 66 million speakers, while Mandarin has over 1 billion.

Apart from all the variations of the Chinese language, many more minority languages can also be found within China, such as Mongolian, Uyghur, Miao and Tibetan, to name a few. English is one of the most important foreign languages in China, with over 10 million speakers all over the country, most of which are found in the country’s urban centers. In Hong Kong, English has the status of an official language and is used in both print and electronic media, as well as during international engagements. Portuguese is another major foreign language in China, which is used as the official language in Macau.