What Languages do People Speak in China?

China's language is the world's oldest written language and has a history going back more than 6,000 years. Because China covers a large area of land with dozens of national minorities, there are hundreds of languages spoken throughout China. Mandarin, the most commonly spoken language in China, is also the world's most spoken language with 1.5 billion speakers.

How Many Languages Are Spoken in China?

There are more than 300 languages spoken in China that fall under 9 language families. While these spoken dialects of mainland China are sometimes mutually unintelligible, some share a common written language.

Because there are huge variations in these dialects or languages, some may be as subtle as different accents or dialect words known in certain regions -- such as the difference between UK and US English -- but some are considered very distinct languages.

Official Languages of China

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and it's based on the dialect of the Han ethnic group from the North. The predominant language is sometimes called Hanyu and the study of this language is viewed as an academic discipline.

The Han language is divided into seven primary language groups or varieties that are so different they aren't mutually intelligible much like German and English.

The languages most frequently supported and studied include:

  • Chinese
  • Mongolian
  • Tibetan
  • Uyghur
  • Zhuang

Standard Chinese (Putonghua) is a type of Mandarin Chinese that's considered the official spoken language of mainland China. China's language laws do not apply to Macua or Hong Kong which have other official languages like Portuguese, English, or Cantonese.

About 71% of Chinese people, or 1.34 billion people, speak some version of Mandarin Chinese as their first language.

There are many dialects of Mandarin, usually focused around major cities:

Standard Mandarin or Standard Chinese is based on the original Beijing dialect of the language. The Gan dialect is spoken in western areas of China, particularly the Jiangxi province. The Hakka dialect is closely related to the Gan dialect and spread throughout China in areas like Hong Kong, Jiangxi, Guizhou, and Guangdong. The Min dialect is spoken primarily in the Jujian province on the southern coast and has a great degree of variance from other dialects. The Wu dialect or Shanghainese is spoken in the Shanghai area. The Xiang dialect is predominantly in the Hunan province. Yue or Cantonese is mostly spoken in Guangdong province in Mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macau. This dialect is very different from other dialects and mutually unintelligible.

Other Languages of China

Languages spoken in China can be broken down into 9 families:

  • Sino-Tibetan family: spoken by 19 ethnicities including the Tibetan and Han
  • Tai-Kadai family: spoken by 9 ethnicities like the Zhaung and Dai.
  • Hmong-Mien: spoken by 3 ethnicities
  • Austroasiatic family: spoken by 4 ethnicities like the Gin or Vietnamese and De'ang
  • Turkic family: spoken by 7 ethnicities like the Kazakhs and Salars
  • Mongolic family: spoken by 6 ethnicities like the Mongols and Dongxiang
  • Tungusic family: spoken by 5 ethnicities
  • Indo-European family: spoken by the Tajiks and Russians
  • Koreanic family: spoken by Koreans
  • Austronesian family: spoken by the Gaoshan

Primary Languages

Name
Chinese
Pop. Speaking
1,296,461,070
Dialects
Gan Chinese, Hakka Chinese, Huizhou Chinese, Jinyu Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Min Bei Chinese, Min Dong Chinese, Min Nan Chinese, Min Zhong Chinese, Pu-Xian Chinese, Wu Chinese, Xiang Chinese, Yue Chinese

Other Languages

Zhuang
14,936,200
Uyghur
10,100,000
Hmong
7,706,400
Mongolian
3,380,000
Korean
2,710,000
Bouyei
2,600,000
Nuosu
2,000,000
Amdo Tibetan
1,800,000
Chuanqiandian Cluster Miao
1,400,000
Khams Tibetan
1,380,000
Northern Qiandong Miao
1,250,000
Kazakh
1,250,000
Central Tibetan
1,070,000
Southern Dong
1,000,000
Western Xiangxi Miao
820,000
Central Bai
800,000
Hani
740,000
Russian
700,000
Hlai
667,000
Lisu
600,000
Lingao
600,000
Tai Nüa
540,000
Wusa Nasu
500,000
Southern Qiandong Miao
500,000
Northern Dong
463,000
Southern Bai
400,000
Parauk Wa
399,000
Iu Mien
383,000
Lolopo
380,000
Eastern Qiandong Miao
350,000
Waxianghua
300,000
Sui
300,000
Naxi
300,000
Large Flowery Miao
300,000
280,000
Lahu
280,000
Bu-Nao Bunu
258,000
Wuding-Luquan Yi
250,000
Sinicized Miao
250,000
Lipo
250,000
Akha
240,000
Central Lalo
213,000
Southern Nisu
210,000
Kim Mun
200,000
Dongxiang
200,000
Southern Lolopo
190,000
Kaduo
180,000
Northern Nisu
160,000
Kyrgyz
160,000
Choni
154,000
Tu
152,000
Wumeng Nasu
150,000
Honi
140,000
Kalmyk-Oirat
130,000
Biyo
120,000
Lahu Shi
117,000
Gepo
100,000
Axi
100,000
Sani
100,000

What Languages do People Speak in China?